Bringing a new baby home the second (or third, or fourth) time around usually isn’t as overwhelming as it was with the first because forthe most part you’ve been there-done that. But when your pack includes a newborn AND a child going through the terrible two and tiresome threes, the older sib may not think your new baby skills are expert level.
Dr. Bronwyn Charlton of seedlingsgroup, an organization that helps moms support their child’s development, has the 411 on what you can do to help your older child ease into big bro or big sis status before and after the baby is born.
How to Prep Your Child before the Baby’s Born
Keep your regular routine. They are plenty of changes you’ll need to make (you ARE having a baby, right?), but you should try to handle most of them at least a few weeks before your due date. Overwhelming change = an unwelcome disruption in the world of your toddler. Toddlers feel safe when they’re involved in the structure of a normal day. Setting up a crib, painting the baby’s room, and moving gear around or taking items from storage should be done earlier rather than later.
Give them something to create a connection. Tell your child a few stories – and include pictures and videos – so they can experience what it was like when he or she was a new babe.
Gauge their level of involvement. Dr. Charlton suggests that your toddler’s involvement should be determined by their interest, not mom’s. They may not show much interest – don’t worry, that’s common. If your toddler or preschooler asks you lots of questions, bring them to a doctor’s appointment so they can hear the heartbeat, or let them offer name suggestions (and jot these down in the memory book!).
Let your older child know what it’s like to have a baby in the home. Prep them ahead of time by saying things like, “The baby will cry a lot, even in the middle of the night when everyone else is sleeping. The baby will sleep a lot, won’t be able to play yet, and will want to eat during the day and night.” Your child will know what to expect, and that’s important to them. A little role play can also help your child understand what life’s like with a baby. Use some dolls or stuffed animals and act out a couple of likely scenarios. It’s a good idea to share what will happen when you’re preparing to give birth. Let them know if grandma will be watching them at home, or if they’ll be in the hospital with the rest of the family, waiting for a little brother or sister to arrive.
Tips for Once the Baby Is Born
Spend time together at the hospital. Have your older child visit baby and mom in the hospital so they’ll see that the birth is a family event. Have a small gift ready, and tell them it’s from their new little brother or sister.
Give them attention. Your visitors are going to gush over the baby, just as they did over your first born. “Remind visitors to pay attention to your older kids and monitor gift giving. It can be upsetting for your child to see all of the presents that the newborn receives, especially when people don’t bring something for him,” says Dr. Charlton.
Expect behavioral changes. A new baby will be an upheaval in the life of your older children. Dr. Charlton says, “Lots of times, the behavior changes parents see in their young children when the baby comes home from the hospital isn’t about the baby, but more about the fact that the child is being responded to differently than before. Often, there are lots of extra people in the home, people bringing gifts for the older child as well, and parents who feel a little bit guilty for having disrupted the first-born’s life with this new baby. So the behaviors that would have been ignored often get attention, while limits (like extra treats) that are generally upheld, now dissolve. Parents sometimes start to see an upsurge of challenging behaviors, which they interpret as being derived from jealousy, but at least in the very beginning, when the baby is still a newborn, this conduct tends to be more about accidentally reinforcing the very behaviors parents don’t want to see.”
Keep it predictable – but expect some surprises. “Toddlers do best with predictable routines. So, when the baby comes home, although everything else in the household has changed, try to keep your toddler’s schedule as normal as possible,” Dr. Charlton suggests. “Also remember: As much as you prepare a young child with dolls, books, and pictures, it is pretty impossible for them to grasp the inevitable changes a baby will bring. In reality, you never know for sure how your child will respond, since much depends on temperament, age, and experiences after the baby’s the baby’s birth. The toddler who can’t get enough of the baby doll you brought home to ‘prep’ them for the real thing might be completely indifferent to his new baby sibling, and the one who hurled the doll across the room, making you terrified for the baby’s birth, might just be the most affectionate.”
Now that we know the do’s, what are the don’ts?
Don’t start any big projects with your child right before or after the baby’s born. Lots of parents who have kids 2-3 years apart are going to be thinking about things like potty training and transitioning to a big bed. Attempting these changes all at once will probably set your toddler or preschooler on edge, and they may regress a bit.
Don’t tell your toddler that you’re having a baby until you start showing. Why? Because your toddler doesn’t understand time yet, and won’t understand that the baby will show up after a months-long countdown. They may expect the baby to arrive in the morning. “Remember, nine months is a long time for anyone to wait, and young children have little concept of time. Use a calendar to mark the days, or talk about how the baby will arrive in a particular season, like when it’s hot outside, or after an event,” says Dr. Charlton.
Soon enough your older child and new baby will be two peas in a pod!