How Can I Help Prepare My Toddler For a Sibling?

by Deborah Gilboa, Family Physician
Originally Published: 

This is a question that keeps pregnant moms up nights (after their bladder wakes them). I think one of the most surprising aspects to a second successful pregnancy is the guilt! We look at our precious first-born and think, “Wow kid, you have no idea what’s coming.”

Let me offer some encouragement: This is not going to be exactly as you are picturing. It won’t be all happiness and rainbows if you handle it well, or poisoned from the beginning if you don’t. Your eldest child will have moments when having a younger sibling is awesome, and moments when it is awful. Not only is there nothing you can do to change this, you don’t need to try.

Having a sibling will offer your eldest child so many opportunities for growth, that he will benefit from this as a person, even when he doesn’t love it. Family relationships give children the chance to learn about communication, negotiation and compromise. Living in close proximity to another person close to their age helps them develop mad skills. Skills like compassion and self-protection, ­­­­how to handle teasing, how to stand up for himself and also to consider someone else’s point of view.

So, hopefully that helps with any guilt you may have.

On to practicalities. To have the best experience possible for your three year old, you have two goals. One is to normalize the experience; the other is to help him keep his sense of self and importance in his relationship with you and his other parent by easing the transition from only child to bigger family.

Normalizing the experience:

  1. If you or your partner has a sibling, tell lots of age-appropriate stories. Stories about what was great, and also a couple about not liking it all the time.
  2. If he has friends that have sibs, point it out. Both older and younger siblings make good examples. “Your best friend Jon is the younger brother. This baby will be like Jon is to his brother Raj.”
  3. Use the media. Joanna Cole has a great book I’m a Big Brother that I used the heck out of. Most kid series TV shows have videos about this – “Three Bears and New Baby” is a Sesame Street favorite. Start these early and let your son’s love of repetition help him.

Easing the transition:

  1. Talk about the plan for the big day – who will he stay with, when will he see you and talk to you, what awesome stuff will he get to do while you’re at the hospital helping the baby be born?
  2. Give him a special job after the birth. Maybe he gets to call friends and family to announce the birth? Perhaps he gets to tell everyone the baby’s name? He could pick out the baby’s special blanket and wrap it and bring it for the baby. I have tried the baby-buys-the-big-kid-a-gift thing, I know a lot of parents who have too. I can’t say this worked very well in my experience – the big kid sees through this ruse in about 2.3 seconds. “There is no room for a bike in your belly, mommy!”
  3. Give the older sib an ongoing responsibility. Maybe he always helps give the baby a bath. Perhaps he has a job to get the special blanket for the crib every night at bedtime.
  4. Point out with words when you are giving him attention ahead of the baby. When my second son was tiny and my eldest wanted my help I would often say to the baby “You’re going to need to wait a minute, I’m helping your big brother now.” My older son invariably stood a little straighter and smiled when I did this, even if the little one was sound asleep when I said it.

Consider the long haul. Remember that it takes even the most mature kids about 3-6 months to internalize the information that this new person is here to stay. So you may see reactionary behaviors set in a little later. This is not a referendum on your parenting. Sibling relationships are many-layered and it is not up to you to navigate them all for your son. This will make them both more resilient as adults.

Good luck with the new baby! I wish you much joy and (close to) enough sleep.

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