While expecting a baby can be an exciting time, if you’ve already got a toddler at home you’re probably wondering how to handle the addition of a new family member without making your older kid feel displaced. There are ways to prepare, though, throughout the pregnancy and in those early days, weeks, and months to help your toddler acclimate to their new role of big sibling.
Use simple language—and do some role playing
The welcoming of a baby sibling into the family is going to be a pretty abstract topic for any toddler, so the key from the beginning will be to use simple, straightforward, matter-of-fact language—and there are any number of board books you can find to help you get started. But remember that time has little meaning to a toddler, so you might want to wait until you’re far enough into the pregnancy that it doesn’t feel like an eternity to them.
Once you do initiate those conversations with simple, age-appropriate language, child psychiatrist Dr. Helen Egger says it can also be helpful to begin some role playing with them using a baby doll or stuffed animal to pretend you’re feeding the baby, rocking the baby, pretending to change diapers—even practicing creeping into the bedroom to be careful not to wake the “baby.”
“Let your little one take the lead so that you can sort of gauge their feelings,” says Egger, who is the co-founder and chief medical officer of Little Otter, a mental health service for children. “They may not actually want to talk that much about it, so you don’t want to be emphasizing it too much if it isn’t something that they’re thinking about.”
Egger also points out that little kids love to hear about when they were babies, so you can talk about what it was like when they were born and you brought them home, to help them feel included and connected to the experience.
Prepare them for the day of birth ahead of time
One of the potentially hardest parts about the process for them may be the actual day of the baby’s birth because they’ll be separated from you for hours or days and, depending on the current COVID restrictions, may not even be able to visit you and the new baby in the hospital or birthing center. As you get closer to the time, make sure to tell them what will happen that day and who will take care of them so they’re less surprised or anxious when it does happen.
Egger also suggests that when you pack your own hospital bag, you pack a “birth bag” for your toddler, too. You can fill it with a few special toys or books and maybe a little card from you that says, “I love you,” and the person who is caring for them can surprise them with it on the big day. You’ll also want to prepare them ahead of time for the idea that newborn babies are small and delicate—and they’re not a whole lot of fun right away.
“Children may have a view that they are going to be able to play with the new baby, and this is going to be awesome,” Egger says. “But the truth is that you want your little one to know that little tiny babies mostly sleep and eat and cry, and it’s going to be a while before they’re going to be a playmate.”
When you do actually introduce them to their new sibling, she says it’s important to stay close by, guide them and encourage them to use gentle touches—and don’t leave them alone with the baby until you’re confident that they know how to safely interact with them.
Let them ignore their baby sibling
You might be hoping your toddler instantly bonds with and falls in love with their baby sibling, but it’s important not to push it. In fact, your toddler may ignore the new baby entirely—and that’s okay.
“They’re going to build their relationship soon enough,” Egger says. “You want to give your other child space to warm up to this new family member and to approach and meet them at the rate that works for them.”
A toddler ignoring their baby sibling isn’t something to be concerned about—ignoring that sibling is just one strategy little kids have to deal with the introduction of this new person who is sucking up an awful lot of their parents’ attention.
Also, little kids love to be helpers, so enlisting their help from time to time with caring for the baby, such as by getting the diapers out for diaper changes, can create some positive engagement. But, Egger says, you want to be careful not to always put your older child in the “helpful” role. They shouldn’t be expected to grow up and be a “big kid” just because a baby has joined the family. In fact, you may even see some regression in your child over things they’d previously mastered, such as potty training.
“This is totally normal,” she says. “If your child is regressing in any way, don’t criticize. This is a sign that they’re experiencing stress, and they need additional reassurance and time with you. They need to know that they are also your precious baby.”
Setting aside even five or 10 minutes a day to give them your undivided attention can go a long way in providing that reassurance.
“Catch” them being good with the baby
We know kids crave attention so deeply that they’ll opt for negative attention if they can’t get the positive variety. Keep this in mind as you interact with your toddler in those early weeks and months of being a big sibling. You’re probably going to want to drop a lot of “No’s” if you see them doing something that might be unsafe for the baby, or if they’re being noisy while the baby is sleeping. But if that’s the main way they’re getting attention from you during this time, it can actually lead to an increase in the behaviors you want to eliminate because it’s feeding their need for attention.
Instead, Egger says you should try to “catch” them being good with the baby and give lots of praise for the positive, gentle behaviors you want to see.
“Make a big fuss over them when they do something nice,” she says. “Give them hugs and kisses; give them positive attention for positive behavior and interaction.”
And finally, it’s important to acknowledge and empathize with the hard or negative feelings they may be having right now—I know, it must be so hard to wait to go to the park because the baby is sleeping!—but to do so in a way that doesn’t dwell on those feelings. Eggers suggests you acknowledge those feelings, offer your support, give them some extra hugs, and then distract them by singing a song or making silly faces.