Waiting for the arrival of a new baby is an exciting time for you. However, the same cannot necessarily be said for any older siblings. Some gentle preparation and guidance can go a long way to allay potential problems when the baby does finally arrive.
Preparation is age-specific, of course. Children over the age of 12 understand what a new baby is and what’s going on. You can tell them about your pregnancy at any time. For younger school-age children and toddlers, experts recommend waiting until you begin to show. That way, the child can see the growing baby. Young children often have difficulty thinking in the abstract. It’s much easier for them if they can see and touch.
For All Younger Children
Begin by telling them that a new brother or sister is going to be in the house soon. Let the child touch your baby bump and feel the baby moving. Be prepared for some peculiar questions because younger children may be confused as to how the baby got in your tummy in the first place. A brief age-appropriate explanation will suffice.
Say that the baby will be a wonderful playmate and the child will always have someone to play with at home when the baby is older. Set expectatations, though, and make sure the child understands that the new baby will cry a lot, will need a lot of attention and will not be able to run and play until they’re bigger. Bring out photos of the younger kids as babies and also photos of you pregnant with each one. This helps the older child relate to the baby as they begin to understand that all people start life the same way.
If possible, let the kids visit the hospital or birthing center for a short tour. Explain that you will be gone briefly for the birth, so the doctor can help you have the baby, and then you will return home very soon. Firmly assure the child that you will be fine.
Purchase small appropriate items for each older child as gifts from the baby after it’s born, such as t-shirts printed with “big brother” or “big sister” or the like.
Age Two and Under
Read to the child from picture books about new babies, siblings and families. Explain that a new baby will soon be in your house, too. Keep it simple, positive and fun.
Ages Two to Four
Family and baby stories are good for this age group, too, because preparation is key. Take the child with you to shop for baby supplies and allow him or her to select a doll they can care for like their own baby. Talk about each child’s birth story, and explain that this is where the fun of birthdays comes from.
It’s going to be a bit harder with this group because jealousy is likely to be a bigger problem. Fortunately, you can typically reason with kids over the ages of six or seven or so. Point out why being older is better, like they go to bed much later and can play outside with their friends and go to school. Ask this age group to draw pictures for the baby’s room and help out with simple baby care like bringing you a clean diaper. This age group can accompany you on the baby’s visits to the pediatrician, too, to help them feel more connected to the new family member. Make a point of telling the pediatrician what a tremendous help the older ones are.
When visitors arrive to see the new baby is often a terrible time for older siblings. They feel neglected, jealous, insignificant and confused as family members and family friends file right past them like they don’t even exist and make a beeline for the new baby. You can avoid this pain point by placing pictures drawn by older siblings right by the door and pointing them out to visitors: “Look what Julie drew for the baby! She helps a lot, and she’s a wonderful big sister!” This will compel visitors to at least acknowledge the older child.
You can also get some small trinkets for each older child and wrap them before the baby comes. That way, when visitors parade through the house with tons of baby gifts, you can give out small gifts to the older children, too.
The Magic of Stickers
Kids love stickers. Get each older child over the age of three or so their own sticker book. Get stickers in bright stars and other images and give them out for helping with the baby and for other small chores around the house. Let each child keep their own sticker book. You can also offer small rewards for every group of stickers given out. For example, 10 stars earns the older child a trip to the park or playground.
Point out how the child is helping with the baby and thank them: “See that! When you make funny faces at him, he stops crying!” Most children will eventually understand and agree that being older is better than being the baby.
Even very young children can show an amazing capacity for altruism, empathy and understanding. It’s never too early to cultivate and encourage these traits, and a new baby will provide lots of chances for this. Older children can participate in baby care in age-appropriate ways that both make them feel important and allow them to understand that babies have the same basic needs and feelings they do. Your pediatrician is also an excellent source of advice for helping your older children prepare for having a new baby in the house.