Expert advice on when, what, and how much to tell your child about the new baby
Being pregnant the second time around seemed utterly unremarkable to me. With a been-there-done-that mentality, I knew what to expect for the most part — except for one wild card: my first son, Ben. Although my husband and I were excited to expand our family and give Ben a sidekick, we weren't so certain that he would be equally as enthused. And so, instead of spending hours poring over photos comparing the baby in my belly to the size of a kidney bean or a cantaloupe, I spent my time pondering how to tell our 20-month-old, Ben, that we loved him so much, we wanted to give him a bawling baby brother who would steal his parents' attention in the near-term and grow up to steal his toys. Needless to say, I was flummoxed.
If you're planning to welcome a new sibling to the family, read on for expert advice on when, what, and how much to tell your older child(ren) about the new baby, both before and after the birth.
When to Break the News
Not surprisingly, there's no one-size-fits-all answer to this question. Beyond counseling expectant parents to wait until safely through the first trimester, Elaine Sweaney, who teaches sibling education classes at the Greater Baltimore Medical Center, said that much depends on the age and maturity of the older sibling-to-be. "Young children have a very abstract idea of time, and if you tell them really early, they won't get it," says Sweaney. Also, little kids might blab the news before you're ready to share it with the world at large.
But, "you know your child best," sasys Janeen Hayward, founder of Swellbeing, a parenting resource service, who advocates informing kids early on — and definitely before parents start telling other people. "Even young children are quite perceptive, and not knowing what's going on with Mommy could make kids feel anxious," so trust yourself to make the right call on when to tell your child.
Whenever you do share the news, she recommends pairing your due date with a recognizable milestone. For example: The baby will be born at the end of summer, or around Halloween, etc.
What to Say
"Keep it short and sweet. There doesn't need to be a long explanation," says Hayward. "You can say something like, 'Mommy and Daddy have decided to have another baby. My belly will get bigger and bigger until the baby is born.'"
Hayward adds that parents should follow the child's lead. "Some are naturally much more curious about it — but they don't always want the long-winded answer that we think they want," she says. "Older children will generally want to know more."
Sweaney adds: "Don't want to give more information than they're asking for. The scary question for parents often is 'How did the baby get in there?' But you don't necessarily need to get into the birds and the bees — they're wondering 'Did Mommy swallow something?'"
You might be surprised by how your child feels about becoming an older sibling. Think she'll be delighted by getting a real, live baby doll to dress up? Sure he'll be devastated by having to share his parents' attention at the dinner table? "Parents shouldn't assume any specific reaction — positive or negative," says Hayward. "In fact, it is often a mixed bag of feelings that children and adults have in relation to the arrival of a new baby into the family. With the new addition there is always a loss of the family the way it was before. The 'Three Amigos' now have a fourth member! It is important to acknowledge the feeling of loss and the accompanying sadness, as well as any others feelings that may come. On any given day it would be perfectly normal for kids to have feelings on both ends of the extreme."
When pregnant with my second son, Ben was present for many of my prenatal visits, as my homebirth midwives came to our house. When I needed to go to the hospital for prenatal testing, though, I found a babysitter out of concern that Ben would be frightened by the experience.
Of course, some parents may want or need to include their older child in all prenatal visits. Again, Hayward says that "each parent should really evaluate their own child specifically," as some children may be fascinated by the chance to see their baby sibling on an ultrasound or listen to its heartbeat, while others may be terrified or confused. Try it once, and if it's too scary, try to arrange childcare for future appointments.
Moving to a New Bed or Room
For many families, having another baby may mean a move for the older sibling. If you'll need the crib or room your older child is sleeping in for the new baby, try to avoid making the transition too close to your due date, to avoid any related feelings of resentment toward the baby.
What if your older child still needs the crib? If investing in another one isn't possible, Hayward suggests trying to make other sleeping arrangements for baby (for example, borrowing a crib, or using a bassinet or Moses basket for the first few months) to avoid prematurely moving big bro out of his crib. Moving a toddler too soon could invite additional problems — think middle-of-the-night roaming coupled with a spotty-at-best newborn sleep schedule.
If your child will need to move into a new room, Hayward and Sweaney both suggest making the change a few months prior to baby's arrival, but certainly by the eighth month. If that's not possible, consider waiting a few months following baby's arrival to make the change.
Learning about Babies
If your big-sibling-to-be hasn't had much experience around babies, consider introducing her to a friend's baby — ideally, the younger sibling of another child — so that she has a sense of what to expect from a baby, suggests Hayward.
Regardless of whether any babies are available for visiting, you can also help to familiarize your child with babies through make-believe. Sweaney suggests giving your child a baby doll and demonstrating appropriate handling, while reminding that adult supervision is always required when it comes to the real thing. Other important lessons for baby-handling include hand-washing and avoiding touching baby's eyes, she says.
Hayward adds that, "play is a child's way of learning how to be in the world. Let them express their feelings without there being an implication. Use a baby doll, a stuffed animal, or something totally different. And once the baby is here, they can be angry at the baby doll — it's certainly preferable to whopping your actual baby on the head."
You Were a Baby Once, Too
For children with little experience with babies, it's easy to view that sweet new bundle as a little attention-stealing monster. Help prepare your older child for the crying and commotion by explaining, "This is what babies do: they cry a lot, they eat a lot, and they sleep a lot. It's Mommy and Daddy's job to figure out why babies cry — maybe he's wet, maybe he's hungry…" says Hayward.
To help your child relate to his new baby sibling, Hayward and Sweaney suggest digging out his baby books. Suggests Hayward, "Page through very slowly, gush over each picture. 'Here we are at the hospital right after you were born. Look at how happy Mommy was!' Keep drawing those parallels. Reminisce and tell stories about when your older child was a baby."
Dr. Claire B. Kopp, Ph.D., author of Baby Steps: A Guide to Your Child's Social, Physical, Mental, and Emotional Development in the First Two Years, says: "Preschoolers (i.e., 4- or 5-year-olds) are far more likely to understand the forthcoming birth of a baby, particularly if parents introduce the child to [the concept of] 'pregnancy' via the use of picture books. For young toddlers, I suggest introducing the topic of the 'new baby' with very simple picture books." Here are some books that tackle the topic:
- The New Baby by Mercer Mayer (baby — preschool)
- What to Expect When Mommy's Having a Baby, by Heidi Murkoff (ages 2-5)
- The Berenstain Bears' New Baby by Stan and Jan Berenstain (ages 4-8)
- Babies Don't Eat Pizza: A Big Kids' Book about Baby Brothers and Baby Sisters by Dianne Danzig (preschool — Grade 2)
- What Baby Needs by Dr. William Sears and Martha Sears, RN, and Christie Watts Kelly (preschool — Grade 2)
- There's a House Inside My Mummy, by Giles Andreae (ages 4-8)
- How to Be a Baby by Me, the Big Sister, by Sally Lloyd-Jones and Sue Heap (ages 4-8)
A Secure Place in the Family
For some children, the thought of a new baby may be more threatening than exciting. For kids who are concerned about losing their spot in the family to the new baby, Sweaney encourages parents to reassure them of how much they are loved and to make them feel special. “The message you give them should be, ‘You are the only you there is, and this new baby can never take your place,'” she says.
Pediatrician Dr. Alan Greene, author of Feeding Baby Green: The Earth Friendly Program for Healthy, Safe Nutrition During Pregnancy, Childhood, and Beyond adds that, “the best preparation is to re-enforce your child’s role in the family — especially the new role as older sibling. Talk to your child about the new baby by calling him ‘your little brother’ instead of ‘Mommy’s new baby’ or even ‘the new baby.’ Try to use language that uses your child as the point of reference. In everything that you do, try to put yourself in your child’s shoes and think about this new arrival the way he would.”
Find a Class
Did you know many hospitals offer a sibling prep class? Sweaney, who teaches such a class herself, says they can be a good introduction to the idea of being a big sibling and might make them more comfortable with the hospital facility itself. She recommends the classes, which teach safe handling of babies and offer information about safe toys and potential choking hazards, for children ages 3-10 and advises coming as close to the due date as possible to keep it fresh in their minds.
Labor and Delivery
Assuming that someone else (a friend, relative, or caregiver) will be staying with your child during labor and delivery, it’s important to provide some basic information so she won’t be alarmed when you have to leave. Hayward says, “Give just the concrete details: ‘When Mommy has to go to the hospital with Daddy, Grandma will be here. It might happen at night or during the day. Daddy will come home with you until I can come home with the baby.'”
Many parents who are expecting a second (or third, or fourth) child may have lovely visions of that first sibling meeting at the hospital and the ensuing photo op. And while it can be a fun and exciting experience for some kids because they get to meet their baby sibling (and let’s be honest, enjoy some rides on the moveable bed), for others it can be a little scary to see their mom in a hospital setting, especially if she’s hooked up to beeping machines.
If that’s the case, Hayward reminds, “children look to their parents to decipher how they should feel about a situation, so if you are calm and matter-of-fact, chances are your child’s interpretation will be that all is well. If your child has a lot of questions, answer them sufficiently, but there’s no need to delve into great detail. If she is more interested in observing, that’s fine too. Know that she’s processing a lot either way.”
Rest assured, for most families, these first visits go well, says Hayward, as they are so novel that older siblings are generally enchanted or stunned.
Dr. Greene recommends having your older child select a present to give to the new baby upon their initial meeting. “Parents can help the older sibling make a little book or a picture frame to hold a photo of the two of them that will go in the baby’s room,” says Hayward. “Additionally, when the child meets the baby it’s nice to have a little something from the baby to the older sibling as well.”
Family and Friends
For little ones, one of the hardest parts of welcoming a new baby into the family may be the sudden shift in attention from them to the baby. Sweaney suggests forewarning your child that guests will fuss over the new baby, just like they did when she was little, and reminding drop-ins (who may be caught up in the excitement over the new baby) to acknowledge your older child too.
Friendly visitors can also help new parents juggle quality time with each kid. Hayward recommends accepting help with the baby when it’s offered (as hard as that may be for many moms to do), so you can spend some time focused on your big kid, whether it’s a short while spent reading on the couch or a special excursion.
Those first weeks at home with an older child and a new baby can be especially exhausting and stressful. “Much depends on older child temperament and new baby sleep and cry behaviors,” says Dr. Kopp. In addition to the round-the-clock feeding, soothing, and diaper-changing that comes with a newborn, this time around you have another child who continues to need you just as much, if not more so, as before baby’s arrival.
While help with your older child from your partner is welcome — mandatory, really — it’s also important to carve out a little time each and every day to just focus on your older child. To ease the transition, Dr. Greene advises parents to “establish a special one-on-one time each day with Dad and Mom. During these times, let the older child set the agenda.” Not only will she feel she has some control, but she might open up about her feelings once she knows you’re really listening.
Dealing With Attention-Seeking Behavior
“Sometimes older siblings regress, sometimes they lash out, sometimes they withdraw,” says Hayward. “In all of those instances, you want to work with your child. You can’t fix it or change it or apologize for it — but continue to try to empathize.” That doesn’t mean you should go soft on discipline, but make sure you find lots of opportunities to give him positive attention too.
He might feel short-changed for a while. “‘Mommy, I wish you would hold me instead of him.’ — that is such an understandable way to feel! At that point the two of you can come up with positive ways to love the new baby sibling that won’t leave the older child feeling left out,” says Dr. Greene.
“If your child expresses anger toward the newborn, help the child grieve over losing his place as the only child in the family by saying something like, ‘It sounds to me like you wish things were the way they were before your baby brother was born,’ says Dr. Greene. “Often this will be enough to soften an older sibling.”
In the end, remember a rough adjustment period is normal. “It’s normal in life even for parents to have mixed feelings, but know that [having a sibling] is an enriching thing.” says Hayward. “The best approach is to observe your child’s behavior and what it’s communicating, and then reflect that back to him. Children don’t want or need to talk about everything, but let them make sense of things through play. Finally, be prepared to tolerate however they’re feeling; don’t try to talk them out of it, but acknowledge it and honor it.”