For many parents, the stress of introducing a new baby in the family almost cancels out the joy of having one. So many terrorizing thoughts come coursing through a mother’s head. Will my older one like the baby? Will he strangle her in the night? Will he hate me for having destroyed our perfect family of three?
He might. But guess what? In the end it will be OK, because siblings are awesome. And they’re the only people in the world who can mindshare just how crazy you are. But how you choose to bring them together matters. Enter Dr. Aliza Pressman, our resident pediatric expert, co-founder of seedlings group and host of popular podcast Raising Good Humans, who breaks down the do’s and don’ts of bringing a new baby into the world of an older child. Just know that no matter what, you might feel guilty, you might cry, but in the end, you’re giving them both the greatest gift in the world, even if it doesn’t always feel that way.
Let’s start at the beginning. You’re pregnant. At what point do you broach the subject with your older child?
When you’re pregnant, depending on the age of your child and how your pregnancy is going, as soon as you’re showing you need to explain yourself. Sometimes parents wait way too long. Kids are incredibly aware and so you always want to make sure you don’t accidentally leave out information that will make them question themselves. It’s for their own sanity. “Something’s weird, but nobody’s told me something’s weird, I must be paranoid.” That’s a weird feeling. But it happens with the best of intentions.
How you explain it depends on the kid’s age. With toddlers, it’s certainly unnecessary to go into details. You can show and explain that you’re growing a baby in your belly. You can say something like, “Right now it’s winter, and when the leaves come back and it’s spring, we’re going to have a baby, and they’ll be your little sibling!”
If it’s a high-risk situation, as long as you’re not having conversations behind closed doors, or looking at each other with widened eyes, that’s the kind of stuff kids pick up on. Of course, if you’re high risk, you don’t want to give information to your kids that’s confusing, but if you’re showing, you can go into more general details. “Mommy’s pregnant, this is where the baby’s growing inside of me, so the baby can have the safest, warmest place to grow. Come hang out with me in bed.”
Basically, use your most reassuring language but explain yourself. You want to use clear language with details that are satisfying and simple without overexplaining. When they have questions, answer their questions. Always respond with an understanding of what their question is. Sometimes they want to know that you’ll be OK. Other times they don’t understand it anyway, and they’ll say, “Thanks for letting me know.” Other times they get really excited. It’s important not to use language that blames pregnancy on your mood. It will set up resentment. “I can’t play with you, because I’m so tired from this pregnancy.” You wouldn’t want to associate pregnancy with a reason why mommy isn’t available. What you want to say, is “I’m going to be in bed, but that means we get to watch movies together.”
In a moment of sadness, let them feel sad and let them know their feelings are OK.
How should you prepare for their reaction?
Most kids of preschool age and older have friends with siblings, so they have a general understanding. So hopefully it doesn’t happen, but the most important thing is not to be attached to their reaction either way. They might be excited or sad, but don’t make a mistake saying, “This is going to be exciting! We’re so happy! You’re going to be in love with him,” or anything that cajols your kid into having the feelings you want them to have. Let them have whatever feelings they’re going to have. If you’re not attached to their reaction, you can be open to listening. Say you understand. “Of course, that must be really hard to think about welcoming someone else into our close knit family, but we’ll try.”
In a moment of sadness, let them feel sad and let them know their feelings are OK. You’re not looking for them to feel differently. But if they’re open to it, think of five things that will be cool about this. Try to keep that a separate conversation so you’re not trying to cheer them up, you’re just accepting feelings they’re just having. A positive perspective is important. To have a positive, explanatory style in life is always a better path to fulfillment and when you’re able to look at the “hope” in a situation. But that comes from the surrounding conversation and the way parents are talking in a household about their own experiences in an explanatory style, rather than them trying to convince you. Let them know they don’t have to be afraid to be sad about it.
How do you handle the physical introduction to a baby and child?
It depends on where you give birth. Let’s use a hospital. If you want your child to come visit you in the hospital, rather than him seeing you holding your delicious newborn, you might want to leave the baby in the front of the window in the nursery, or if you’re going home, have someone else hold the baby and you can come bring your child out to meet the baby, so that the first meeting isn’t you having this wonderful moment with your delicious new baby. Then you say, “I have someone to introduce you to,” and you can even say, “Do you want to introduce yourself or do you want me to introduce you?” You can have them pick a favorite song to sing to the baby, help them to decide what they’ll do when they first meet the baby. What do they want to say? Don’t say, “Now kiss the baby, hug the baby.” It’s a crazy, mind blowing event. A whole person came out of their mother sitting there like a little blob.
Is there a definitive rule on getting your older child a present?
It’s totally personal. There are some people who feel like you can leave a little gift from the baby in the bassinet. There are some people that say you should leave a present for your kid to wake up to with a note from you when you’re at the hospital. But there are other schools of thought that suggest that the idea of a gift may not be that relevant for more than two seconds, a band-aid that doesn’t work. It’s a sweet thing to do, but it’s an unnecessary thing if you don’t want to. There’s not enough research out there to give credit to people who are for or against it. Just remember, you can’t not think that over time you can create a perfect world where no one says anything about how cute the baby is. Reality will hit at some point.
How much attention should you be giving your older child?
There’s no question that you’re going to have the instinct to make sure that your first baby feels and grasps that there is no shortage of your love and that they don’t need to compete for a very precious resource – your love, time and attention. At the same time, try not to feel guilty if there’s a moment where your first baby feels crappy. Because you’re sensitive and loving and you know it’s just a moment. And they know it too. They might just not know it in the moment.
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What are typical “acting out” tendencies and how do you resolve them?
Often times you build up what this first meeting is going to be like. But, a new baby is not that exciting and you don’t realize there’s no real competition for resources until they’re moving and giggling and reaching. Sometimes that can take 6-9 months. I get calls from people to have a session at around the time when a new baby turns 10 months. “My son was in love with her and all the sudden he’s being aggressive and clingy.” That’s natural as it’s right around the time the baby is getting clingy and has a sense of person, permanence and gets separation anxiety and is needier. You can no longer ignore that baby for the toddler. Now it’s the real competition for you. Plus, they’re so delicious and smiley and interacting. The older child is no dummy.
You might see a regression in behavior. You definitely don’t want to do big transitions six weeks before or after a new baby. It’s common to want to take your older child out of a crib and give the crib to the new baby. It seems like a smart idea, save resources, all of these things. But what I would remember is that your baby doesn’t need a crib for the first few months, so give your child time before that happens. So things like potty training, moving to a big kid bed, getting rid of a bottle, any of those things put to the side or do them well before the baby is born. Of course my biggest caveat is that these things will happen. This is about being conscious of those habits where we have to compare the kids or pit them against each other, or attach ourselves to their emotional reactions for the outcome we’re looking for. It doesn’t mean you’ll change your ways, but you can be a bit more thoughtful before you speak.