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Baby Steps: Baby Number Two

Q. My son is 16 months old and I have another child due in two months. I'm worried about how he will act around the new baby. Sibling classes all seem to be for children 3 years of age or older. How do I teach him to be gentle and calm with the baby? Will I be able to let him near the baby? He hasn't been around many other children except for our church nursery, and even then he can play rough at times.

A. There are many factors that will influence your son's response to a new baby. Some aren't really under your control, such as the temperaments of both children and the age difference between them. But other factors are under your control, such as how you prepare your son for the new arrival and how you treat the two children.

Research suggests that the better prepared young children are for the birth of a sibling, the better they do. With toddlers, you should start preparing them several months before the baby comes, but there's no need to tell them as soon as you know you're pregnant. One method of preparation that works particularly well with toddlers and preschoolers is to make a book describing, as accurately and specifically as you can, what is going to happen. Be as concrete as possible, and, if you don't have faith in your drawing abilities, use photographs, stickers, and pictures from magazines. Make your little boy the star of the story ("Nicky is going to be a big brother") and include details such as where he will stay when you go to the hospital, who will bring him to see his new sibling, who will bring the new baby home, and where the new baby will sleep. Start reading the book a few weeks before your due date. Seeing the pictures and hearing the words again and again, in the same way, will help your son feel that there is some predictability to the coming events.

You can also let him "practice" being with a baby by bringing home a doll and showing your son how it is diapered, fed, and treated gently. If any friends have young babies, let your son meet them, too, so he can observe how they are handled. Even in the doctor's office or grocery store, point out newborns and tell him that that is what the new baby will look like when he or she comes home.

Although you may be worried about your son hurting the baby, try not to convey that worry by hovering or clucking warnings. Rather, let your little boy get close to the baby, and touch, smell, and explore. This little person is as new for your son as he is for you, and just as you'll examine every inch of the newborn's body, your son wants to also. This exploration helps him to know his new sibling -- and, in the process, you can remind him to be extra-gentle with the baby (if he needs such reminders at all).

Be sure to include your son in the care of the baby, and let him know that he is still important. A big contributor to children's difficulties with siblings is the sense that the other is receiving preferential treatment. You don't want to send a consistent message of favoritism (although all children, at one time or another, will accuse parents of this) or, more subtly, that the younger child's needs are more important. For this reason, you'll want to avoid making comparisons between the children, and you ought to discourage family members from doing so as well. One trick is to have a small stash of wrapped gifts ready for your son, so that when well-wishers come bearing gifts for baby, the older one won't feel left out. Encourage your visitors to engage your son in some way, rather than focusing solely on the baby.

Finally, don't be surprised if you see some less-than-gentle behavior at some point. This is natural. In fact, experts say that although there is a wide range in the frequency of positive behaviors that older siblings direct toward younger ones, all exhibit some negative behaviors. No child behaves kindly all the time. Also remember that he is young and still learning to express his needs verbally, and that he may be a little upset about having to share you. So if your son gets a little wild, don't worry too much -- some regression, aggression, and clinginess is to be expected.