Preparing for the newest member of your family is an exciting time, but for your first child, these changes can be hard to understand and a little scary.
They don't know what it means to be a big brother or big sister, and they will have to learn to share your attention and their home. Children, no matter the age, pick up on the emotions and attitudes of their parents. If you're excited, they'll be excited too! If you're nervous, they'll feel the effects and reflect those. If they don't understand the changes, they may act out and display those emotions as well.
Help them transition into their new role by how you talk to them and in the time you spend with them.
Telling Your Child
You'll know the best time to tell your child about their new sibling, but it's best they hear about the baby from you before anyone else. The age of your child will affect what they can understand about a new baby and how you tell them.
Use age-appropriate language that makes sense to them. For younger children, "Mommy's belly is going to get bigger, because Mommy is going to have a baby" is probably enough. For preschoolers, telling them as you start buying furniture for the baby so they are seeing the changes may be a good time. Older children will understand more easily; they'll also naturally be more curious and ask more questions.
For younger children who don't understand the concept of time, describing when baby comes in terms of weather or events might help them. Instead of saying baby will come in a couple months, say the new baby will come when it's hot and we get to wear shorts and play in the pool.
Reading books together no matter the child's age is a good way to explain having a new baby in the family and being a big brother or sister. Many younger children like to read books over and over again, so the more they hear the concept and see the changes in the home, the more they'll learn to understand.
Before Baby Arrives
As your child begins to understand what a new baby means and sees the changes in the home, they may start to act out due to not being able to understand the changes or feelings of jealousy. Getting your child involved in the excitement of planning can help alleviate some of those feelings. Have them create artwork for the baby's room, take them shopping for the new baby, think up baby names together, etc.
Visit friends with babies so they can see, touch, and hear what a baby is like. Describe that when babies are born, they sleep, eat, and cry a lot and won't play with them right away.
Depending on the age of your older child, consider giving them a baby doll to help them learn how to care for a baby. Once the baby is born, they'll be able to take care of the doll when you're caring of the newborn.
Taking a "Big Kid" class at your local hospital is another good way to learn how to be a big brother or sister. Many of these classes give a small tour of the hospital so the older child has a frame of reference for where Mommy goes when it's time to have the baby. Methodist Health System offers a "Big Kid Basics" class at Methodist Women's Hospital as part of their childbirth education series.
To help you and your child, try to time major changes a few weeks before or after the new baby arrives. For instance move your toddler into their big kid bed before baby arrives or wait to potty train your child until after the baby arrives. Too many changes at one time is overwhelming for anyone and especially a child who is learning to understand the world around them.
After Baby Arrives
Bring your older child to the hospital shortly after the baby is born. You may want to introduce your child to their new sibling with only your immediate family present to reinforce the idea that this new baby is part of their family now.
The new baby will receive lots of attention and presents, so having a few small presents for your older child will help them feel included and loved too. Consider giving your child a "big brother" or "big sister" t-shirt from the new baby.
Toddlers may regress in certain skills after the baby is born. A child may want to take a bottle or a potty trained child may have accidents. This is normal and is a way of expressing their feelings and making sure they still have your love and attention. Telling them to act their age doesn't help but giving them the attention they need and praising when they act like a big kid will help them move forward. If your child does regress or act out or act differently, try to ask them how they feel about the new baby. Looking them in the eye, listening and hearing from them will help you understand their feelings and show them know how much you care about them.
Try to maintain your older child's schedule, and don't feel guilty about sending them to school or daycare even if you're home. The structure gives their days some normalcy and also gives you a chance to spend time alone bonding with the new baby.
Try planning a special time for just you and your older child. While the new baby is sleeping during the day or before the older child's bedtime, develop a new tradition of playing a game, reading a book, having a special snack or talking about their day. Take the time to slow down and develop a new part of a relationship with them.
While moms are bonding with the new baby, this is a great time for dads and the older child to bond in a new way. Find something that's unique to just dad and child, like camping in the backyard, visiting a new park, playing a child's favorite game or discover a new one, learn a new skill like riding a bike or baking, take an art class or try a new activity.
Arrange for your older child to have one-on-one time with a special adult like grandparents or aunts and uncles. This will help them feel like a big kid and that they're special and loved. This will also give you some time with the new baby and a chance to rest.
Give your child chances to help with the new baby by having them bringing a new diaper, pacifier, bottle or other items. Have them pretend to feed or diaper their doll while you're taking care of the baby. Give them the chance to help hold the baby. This will help them feel like a big kid and develop a sense of responsibility and love for their new baby brother or sister. Some children may have no interest in the baby at all. This is also normal and it's ok to let their interest develop when it will.
Becoming a big brother or sister is very exciting but can also be overwhelming. Some quality time, attention, and communication can go along way to comforting your child and letting them know how much they're loved and valued as you navigate the new family dynamics.