Before I gave birth to my second child, I worried a lot about my first. What if he felt abandoned when I left for the hospital, betrayed when I brought another child home? But Sam was thrilled to have a baby of his own to benefit from all of his four years of accumulated wisdom. "Always look both ways before you cross the street, Henry," he would caution, leaning over the bassinet. "Never try to take a bone away from a big dog, Henry."
Less than two years later the new baby was a big brother himself, and I was fretting again. But despite sometimes insisting that I put the baby down and hold him instead, Henry loved Joe with his whole 2-year-old heart. I would hear him over the monitor comforting Joe as soon as the baby fussed. "Is all right, Doe," he'd say. "I right here. I right here."
A new baby is bound to cause a certain amount of chaos in any family, but that doesn't have to be a bad thing. My husband and I found that the transition from one child to two, and from two to three, was far more about delight than fear or brooding resentment. There are ways to help a child greet the idea of a new sibling -- and the reality -- with anticipation, excitement, and joy.
It's All in the Planning
No one is ever fully prepared for the cataclysmic changes that a new baby brings, but here are some things you can do beforehand to lessen the shock for an older sibling:
Celebrate. Tell your child how lucky the baby will be to have such a wonderful big brother or sister. Karenetha Easterwood, a Frisco, TX, mother of two, would place her toddler's hand on her belly and say, "Look, Kelly, this is your baby kicking. Your baby can't wait to meet you."
Demystify the doctor. If Mommy's heading off to the obstetrician all the time, a child may worry that something awful is happening to her. Carola Yeakle, of Boca Raton, FL, circumvented this fear by bringing her 4-year-old daughter along to several prenatal appointments. To include the child in the process, her thoughtful ob-gyn made Madeleine a chart too, which the nurse filled out every month with Madeleine's own blood pressure and weight. "It only took about 10 seconds," says Yeakle, "but it made Madeleine feel special and involved."
Meet a real baby. Seeing an actual newborn can go a long way toward clarifying the reality that a baby sibling won't be an instant playmate. Two months before my third child was due, I took my two older boys to visit a friend who'd just given birth to her own third child. "Wow," Sam kept saying, "I forgot how squinched up babies are!" Henry just took off the baby's socks and looked in awe at his tiny red baby toes.
If there's no newborn handy, consider enrolling your child in a sibling-preparation course at the hospital where you'll be delivering. These classes typically include a tour of the birthing center and nursery. If your hospital doesn't offer a program, ask whether you can give your child a tour yourself.
Discuss pragmatic issues early on. Small children are less interested in the cosmic implications of having a sibling than in simple matters, like what babies eat and where they sleep. When I was pregnant with number two, my husband brought the crib down from the attic as soon as we realized that Sam was planning for the baby to sleep on his trundle bed with his Beanie Babies.
Having such things resolved before the baby arrives can give an older sibling a sense of control. Anna Lee Giattina, the mother of five daughters in Birmingham, AL, says, "We treated each baby like a part of the family even before she was born and talked about how to include her in everyday activities. If we were walking with the stroller, I'd say, 'When Kathryn gets here, where do you think we should let her sit?'"
Solicit decorating advice. Involving siblings in fixing up a nursery -- or rearranging a bedroom the two children will share -- gives them a chance to put their own special mark on baby preparations. It will also help them establish a clear sense of territorial boundaries. "This is the baby's room," they'll learn to think, "and I have my own room down the hall." Or, in the case of a shared room, "The crib is for the baby. I have my own big-girl bed and my own Barney comforter."
Keep in mind, of course, that your child's ideas might not suit your budget or taste, so you may need to guide him. My 6-year-old's first idea for his newest baby brother's nursery was an elaborate jungle motif, complete with handmade papier-mache parrots hanging from the ceiling. Dismayed by the prospect of creating all those feathers, I gently suggested that as a budding astronomer, he might find it fun to decorate the room with a cosmological theme, and he readily agreed. We glued glow-in-the-dark stars to the nursery ceiling, and fashioned a giant papier-mache sun ("to represent Dad," Sam explained), a smaller moon (for me), and three stars (one for each child in our family) to hang on the wall.
Sam painted a picture of the night sky to hang over the changing table, carefully printing "I love Sam" across the bottom because, he said, "that's what the baby will be thinking when he sees this great room I helped you make for him."
Practice Makes Perfect
A baby doll can go a long way toward teaching a child how to touch and hold a real infant. Select one that's approximately the same size as a newborn, with lifelike features. Present it to the sibling-to-be a few months before her "real baby" is due to arrive on the scene.
Brenda Mulville, of Mesa, AZ, took the baby-doll idea one step further. She came up with the idea to throw 4-year-old Tiffany a shower a few weeks after her own -- for a new baby doll Mulville intended to give the little girl when her real baby sister arrived. (Tiffany knew she was going to get the doll.) Mother and daughter sent out baby-shower invitations, and just like an expectant mommy, Tiffany received a stroller, new clothes, and other essentials for her doll. Just as important, she also got a lot of much-needed attention. "At the party no one even asked about my pregnancy," says Mulville. "That day was all for her."
There's Lots in a Name
An unborn baby can seem more real if it has a name, so choosing one during pregnancy -- and using it often -- can help jump-start a new sibling relationship.
So can allowing the older child to somehow participate in the name selection. Not that you would want to give him carte blanche, of course -- my first son desperately wanted to name his brother Luke Skywalker -- but many parents recommend letting the older child at least cast a vote from the list you're already considering.
Even if you don't want your older child to help choose the baby's name, you can still involve him in the process by letting him in on why you've settled on the names you have. Sara and David Baker, of Cincinnati, told their son Daniel they wanted to pick a name that began with D (Derek) so the new baby would match his father and brother.
Wrap Things Up
Becoming a big brother or sister is a huge rite of passage, and rites of passage ought to be celebrated with presents, properly adorned with lots of ribbons and bows.
"We wanted Chris to be excited about the new baby," says Shannon Barber, of Bend, OR, "and what better way to do that, from a toddler's point of view, than to come home bearing gifts?" She and her husband selected an electronic game for baby Eric to "give" to his big brother, making a point of presenting it to Chris when they brought the baby home from the hospital.
This tactic works in reverse too: Let older siblings choose a gift for the baby. They'll probably select something they'd like for themselves, but the point of the gift is to get them into the new-baby spirit.
Note that some people will bring your older child a big-sister or big-brother gift when they come to see the new baby, but many won't. It's hard for young kids to see babies being bombarded with presents, so set aside some small treats -- such as new crayons, a yo-yo, or a puzzle book -- for when you need them. Bring one out after the guest leaves.
To make the adjustment period as stress-free as possible:
Delegate baby chores to Dad or Grandma. Nursing is the only task that can't be handed off to friends or relatives who are itching to get their hands on that little bundle anyway. Your baby won't know who's tending to him, but your older child will; try to bathe, read, and play with her as much as possible at the start of her life as a sibling.
Give the baby away. To your older child, that is. With your help, let her hold the new baby, kiss the top of his head, tickle his teensy toes. Tell her that this is her baby. Take lots of pictures of the newborn with his sibling, and make copies for brothers and sisters to keep.
Make your older child feel needed. Kids love to help, and they won't have time to feel left out if you make them feel that you couldn't get along without them. Even a toddler can bring you a burp rag from the changing table; an older child might do the burping himself (with you sitting close at hand, of course). Let your big girl or boy help push the stroller, "babysit" while you answer the phone, and cheer up a fussy baby by jiggling a toy in front of her face.
Emphasize the advantages of age. It may seem to your older child that newborns get all the breaks -- lots of attention with no responsibilities and no time-outs. Remind him that there are many wonderful treats that only big kids are allowed to have. Say, "Poor baby. She can only drink milk. How would you like to join me for an ice cream cone?" Or, "The baby has to go to bed now, but we've got time to read some stories first."
Put your first child first. Once in a while, say to the baby (when your older child can overhear), "I'm sorry, honey, but you'll have to wait for your new diaper. I'm making your sister's sandwich right now." And until things settle down, let the house go. Doing a puzzle or singing with your older child or reading to your toddler is far more important than making the beds. When your baby is sleeping, grab a little one-on-one time together. As my husband's grandmother used to tell me, "Those dust bunnies will still be under your sofa long after your babies are grown and gone."
Margaret Renkl is a former teacher who lives in Nashville.