If you’re expecting a baby, you know there are big changes ahead. There will be a demanding little mouth to feed, diapers to change and cries to soothe. You’ll need to make room in your home for this new little being, from preparing a nursery to clearing out an area for baby toys. And you’ll be tired. Very, very tired.
As parents, we know this part of the deal. But for a child, the prospect of a new baby can be incredibly overwhelming. And it doesn’t help that they’re probably learning to cope with other big changes like potty training or preschool. According to Christine Chambers, a child psychology professor at Dalhousie University, preparing for a new sibling can be confusing and challenging, especially for children who are still young enough that they don’t understand the implications of having a new baby in the house.
“Younger children may not even grasp the idea that this baby is going to stay,” says Christine. “I’ve heard lots of stories about how the new baby arrives and, after a few days, the older child starts asking when the baby is going to go home.”
There are plenty of ways to gently prepare your child for their new brother or sister and it all starts with sharing the news. Christine recommends waiting until the end of your first trimester, and then telling your child when you have plenty of time to answer questions. Have a few good books on hand (think Joanna Cole’s I’m a Big Brother or I’m a Big Sister) and be prepared to address any worry – big or small.
Then, as Christine points out, know your audience. “Take into account the age of the older sibling and how much they will understand,” she says. “A five-year-old will be able to appreciate the experience in a very different way than a two-year-old.”
Once the cat’s out of the bag, you can expect to be regularly bombarded with questions. Your child won’t fully understand what’s happening, so take opportunities to talk about what it will be like and read a lot of stories about the experience. If you have a friend or relative with a new baby, introduce your child and give them a chance to see what a newborn can be like.
While it’s great to play up the importance of being a big brother or a big sister, it’s equally important to avoid giving false expectations. Be careful about saying things like “You’re going to have someone new to play with!” because they won’t be able to play with the baby for quite awhile.
“Children can be disappointed when they realize that their new baby brother is only going to cry, feed and sleep, so it’s good to be honest about that,” says Christine. “Instead, suggest things that they can help with.” These might include picking out clothing and toys, stocking the changing table and putting away receiving blankets.
Above all, make sure that your child knows that they’re still going to have their own time with you. It’s normal for every child to feel a little jealous, but you can curb those emotions by making sure that they get the same time and activities they’ve always had with you.
Originally published in ParentsCanada magazine, May 2014.