Your toddler may always feel like your little baby. But now there’s another baby on the way. And you want to help your first get ready for life as an older sibling.
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Bringing home a new baby should be an exciting time for the whole family. But adding another family member changes things. The key is to help your toddler embrace that change and feel confident that the new addition won’t change your love for them.
“When a new baby is added to your family, it’s both a happy and challenging time for a family,” acknowledges childbirth educator Karen Spreng, RN, FACCE, LCCE. “The relationship between your children is very important. Preparing your older child or children ahead of time will help them adjust when the baby comes.”
Looking for practical advice to help your child prepare for a new sibling? Spreng offers some tips for helping toddlers (and even older kids) with the transition.
If you’re the one who’s pregnant, include your toddler in your journey.
Starting from the time you share your pregnancy news with your toddler, you can invite them to share in the excitement of a new baby on the way.
If you’re comfortable with it, bring your child to some prenatal visits so they can hear their sibling’s heartbeat. And when you start to feel kicks, let them have a chance to feel your belly. And you can encourage your toddler to talk to your bump so your new baby can hear their voice.
“Pregnancy can be a difficult concept for toddlers to understand, sometimes because it’s so abstract to them,” Spreng shares. “Anything you can do to help them connect the dots between your growing belly and their new sibling can help them to prepare for the new baby.”
Chances are your child doesn’t have a strong grasp on what newborns are really like. They may expect their sibling to arrive ready to play tag and eat ice cream with them.
So, when a squirmy, sleepy newborn comes along, it can seem disappointing to kids who expected an immediate playmate. But you can help prepare them by talking to them about what to expect.
Talk with your child about what they were like as a baby and show them photos from their babyhood to give them a sense of what babies do (and don’t do).
Talk about how they cried. How they wore diapers. How they couldn’t even sit up on their own. How they were fed. And other ways they’ve grown up since they were newborns.
“It will help to set expectations about what infants are like, especially with very young kids,” Spreng says. “Newborn babies don’t exactly make the most compelling company for toddlers, so it helps if they know something about what to expect long before the baby arrives.”
Your local library probably has a lot of resources that you can use to help your child understand babyhood, too. Read age-appropriate books about babies with your child and talk about the realities of having a baby around.
For more tangible learning, you can model baby care for them with a stuffed animal or doll. Encourage them to hold their “baby” by supporting their head and using gentle touches. Demonstrate feeding their baby doll with a bottle or at your chest. Or show them how to diaper the doll.
The more self-sufficient your child is, the more it will help you when you have your hands full with a new baby. But remember to manage your expectations of what’s developmentally appropriate for your toddler.
“Depending on their age and abilities, it might be reasonable to encourage your child to learn to dress themselves, play independently for short periods of time or use the bathroom on their own before the baby comes,” Spreng suggests. “But be careful not to force them to learn new skills if they’re not ready.”
One thing not to rush, Spreng advises, is moving your toddler to a big kid bed.
“If your older child is still in the crib, be careful not to make them feel they’re being ‘kicked out’ to make room for the baby,” she cautions. “Their crib can feel like a very safe space. So, you don’t want to hurry them out of it. If they’re developmentally ready for a bed, start the transition several months before the baby comes, if you can.”
Spreng advocates that babies sleep in a bassinet in their parents’ rooms for at least six months. If your older child is still in the crib when it’s time to move the baby to their own room, consider borrowing a crib from a friend or family member until your older child is ready to make the move to a big kid bed. Make sure borrowed cribs meet current safety guidelines.
If you’ll be in the hospital for the birth of the baby, make sure your child understands that you’ll be away and is well prepared for that. Especially if they’re used to you being around, a few days away from their parent can be concerning for a toddler.
Make sure your child knows that you’ll be away when the baby comes and that they’ll be well cared for when you’re gone. Keep them in the loop about plans, including where they’ll go and who will watch them while you’re away. (And start those conversations early, in case the baby comes sooner than expected.)
Your toddler may also benefit from helping you prepare for the hospital. Consider enlisting their help as you pack your hospital bag. Or let them choose a coming-home outfit for their sibling.
It can be easy for even well-meaning friends and family to get caught up in the excitement of the new baby. But it will help with the transition if your big one feels just as important after the baby comes.
Some ways to do that include:
When your baby comes, you might consider having your older child handle responsibility for some simple baby-related “jobs.” That can give them confidence that they’re a “big kid now” and feed their desire to be your helper.
Some ways toddlers can help with their new sibling include:
After your baby comes, it’s common for the older child to experience feelings of jealousy. They’re used to being the center of attention, and now, your focus is divided. That’s normal.
During the transition, focus on praising positive behavior and ignoring negative behavior. Reward only those behaviors you want to continue.
“Talk, hold and show affection to the sibling whenever you see signs of jealousy or regressive behavior,” Spreng recommends. “Show plenty of reassurance and offer praise for positive ‘big brother’ or ‘big sister’ actions and behavior. And reassure the older child that you have enough love for them and the new baby.”
It’s natural, too, for your child to be interested in the newborn and want to interact with them.
Encourage your older child to share a few safe and age-appropriate toys with the baby, but don't force them to.
“Sharing is an important skill, but you don’t want the older child to feel like they have to give up their favorite things for their sibling,” Spreng clarifies. “Allow your child to keep special toys or stuffed animals that are ‘just for them.’”
Remember, too, that some of those big-kid toys aren’t safe for babies and could pose a safety hazard for the newborn. So, monitor their sharing closely.
And if your child is particularly interested in the baby, calmly and lovingly teach them to interact safely with their sibling. Show them how they can gently touch the baby’s head, feet or hands. Try to limit using words like “don't touch” as much as possible.
There’s no doubt that having a new baby around is hard work. But your toddler deserves your time, too.
Try to enjoy some one-on-one time with your older child while your baby naps. Or enlist help when you need it to make sure you have space and time for both children, and so you can spend even small amounts of time alone with your older child.
Bonding time can be especially important at bedtime. And short trips to their favorite places, like the park or a library, can help reinforce your connection with your toddler.