How to Prepare Your First Child for a New Baby

Little girl listening to mother's pregnant belly

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Congratulations! Your family is expecting a baby! As you prepare over the coming months, one of the most important jobs you'll have is to get your older child ready for the big role of becoming a sibling (for the first time or again).

No matter how your child reacts to the news—with joy, with anger or with seemingly no response at all—it’s normal. A lot of it will have to do with age (a 3-year-old won’t understand about the change in the family dynamic quite as much as a 5-year-old will) but in any case, learning about their evolving feelings and how they react to them is a big part of a young child's emotional development.

No matter how ready your child may seem, once the baby is born, there will be an adjustment period.

During the Pregnancy

Your best bet is to address the changes in your family before the new baby arrives.

Sharing the Big News

There's no real tried-and-true method for telling a child about a new baby. Think about the due date is as well as the age of your child. Most kids under 5 have trouble understanding time, so it's best to say the baby will arrive when the weather gets warm or around Halloween.

If your little one asks for details, don't feel you have to explain everything. A child who wants to know where a baby comes from is looking for a literal answer. Saying "Inside my belly" is likely enough. Let your child's questions be your guide.

Remind Them They Were a Baby Once, Too

When you are digging through the attic looking for baby clothes and gear you’ve put away for another day, be sure to pull out photo albums and baby books from when your little one was an infant. Talk about what a cute baby they were and how much fun it will be to have another little one in the house.

Ask for Their Advice

While you may not be brave enough to solicit name ideas from your little one, you can ask for your child's opinion on other important details like bedding, toys, and even clothing. If you decide to register, bring your little one along (try to keep the trip short; you can always go back later and add items if you need to) and actively ask for their input. If possible, let your child pick out one or two items that you purchase on the spot—a small toy or pair of pajamas, perhaps.

Getting young children involved in the process of preparing for the new baby will show them that they are an important, contributing member of the family, and that the life of the new sibling is something they should be part of.

Expect a Little Moodiness

It’s perfectly normal for your child to have different feelings about the new baby day by day (or hour by hour). As your lap begins to get smaller and you can’t bend and pick up your older child, it’s likely that they may be angry as they feel like their life is being upended. No matter how your child reacts, it’s important for you to listen carefully and not make your child feel bad if they are not acting especially warm-hearted to the idea of a new baby.

Prepare, Prepare, Prepare

Take a trip to the library and pick out some books that will gently explain what’s going on. Good titles include What to Expect When Mommy is Having a Baby by Heidi Murkoff and Laura Rader (HarperFestival, 2004) and The New Baby by Mercer Mayer (Random House, 2001), which addresses a big brother’s reluctance to welcome a new sibling.

Don’t Rush Milestones

Is your preschooler potty-training? Are you thinking about moving your toddler to a big-kid bed? You may want to hold off for a little while. You don’t want your little one to feel displaced because the new baby needs their crib.

Once the pregnancy is in the third trimester, it’s a good idea to hold off on introducing any major new aspects to your child's life. Yes, the new baby needs to sleep in the crib, but for the first few weeks or months, you may want to consider using a cradle or play yard.

Unravel Medical Mysteries

Your young child may associate the hospital and the doctor with being sick. It’s important to assure them that going to the doctor is important for pregnant parents and that nothing is wrong. Let them accompany you on your visits; they will probably get a kick out of hearing the heartbeat and seeing the baby through an ultrasound. Your OB will likely talk to your child as well and be able to answer any questions they might have.

If possible, let older children come with you on a tour of the hospital. In fact, many centers offer special classes and sessions for big-siblings-to-be.

No matter what, encourage your child to ask questions and do your best to answer them, keeping sparse on the medical details of childbirth. You don’t want to worry them needlessly about something they can't understand.

Keep Some Focus on the Big Sibling

Young children are self-centered, simply because they are still learning about their place in the world. So feed your child's ego a bit by talking about what a great big sibling they are going to be and how the family is going to need their help. As you decorate the nursery or baby’s sleeping area, consider changing some parts of your older child's room if you think it will help—perhaps a new bedspread or lamp.

Get Your Child a Newborn Doll

Especially if your child is younger (say, one to three years old), try purchasing a baby doll similar in size to a newborn. Let your little one practice holding, changing and feeding their baby. Treat it as close to the real thing as realistically possible, taking it for walks in the stroller and even placing it in a car seat as the due date nears.

Before Childbirth and At the Hospital

As your due date approaches, try these strategies to help your child prepare to become a new sibling.

Get Up Close With the Real Thing

If you are lucky enough to know someone who has recently had a baby, see if your child can play big brother or big sister for a few hours. Depending on the age of your child (and the bravery of the new parents), ask if your child can do some simple, adult-supervised tasks like holding or feeding the infant.

If you don’t know anyone with a baby, look into courses at the hospital. They won’t let you touch the babies, but educators often have true-to-life dolls that are a good substitute and will at the very least let your child get a feel for what they can expect.

Draw Up a Game Plan

As the due date gets closer, talk to your child about what will happen when you have to go to the hospital. Explain who will be caring for them and that not only will they be able to talk to you on the phone (if this is an option) but that they’ll be able to visit you and the new baby after the baby is born. In the days before giving birth, try to keep a regular routine. You want life to be as close to normal for your your child.

Visitor #1

Let your child be the first member of the family to meet the baby, as close to its birth as possible. And keep the meeting private so your child can react naturally, without a crowd present. The first time your child sets eyes on a new sibling could be overwhelming emotionally, so it’s important that you stay in tune with what they are feeling.

When it’s time for other visitors to stop by, let your preschooler play whatever role they are comfortable with. Some will want to act as the master of ceremonies, introducing their new sibling to grandma, while others may prefer to hang back and watch the action. If possible, ask a relative that your child is especially close with to take them for a walk or maybe get a snack, just to help them get away from it all for a little while.

Celebrate!

Above all else, a new baby is a cause for celebration. Let your preschooler pick out a gift to give to their new baby brother or sister and likewise, have the new baby “bring” a present to your little one. While you are at the hospital after the baby has been born, it’s likely the new addition will get lots of gifts from well-wishers.

This could be hard for your child. Stock up on little items like coloring books, crayons, stickers, and small trinkets to bring out.

New Life at Home

Expect Regression

As your family adjusts to its new dynamic, remember that your “big kid” may not be thrilled with their new role yet. Don’t be surprised if they ask to drink from a bottle or nurse, have bathroom-related accidents, engage in baby talk, or even ask to sleep in the crib (especially if the crib was once theirs).

Try not to get angry; in fact, it’s important you don’t. This is your child’s way of expressing anxiousness about their role in the family. Just keep giving them extra hugs, and when they behave like a big kid, heap on the extra praise.

Welcome “Help”

There are lots of jobs your child can do to help you care for the new baby: fetch diapers, push the stroller, or even assist in dressing (say, choosing between a few outfits or putting on baby's socks). It may take longer with the extra set of hands, but if your preschooler wants to be involved, welcome their efforts.

There are, however, some things parents will do with the baby, such as breastfeeding, that will make older kids feel left out. If you are nursing, keep books nearby to read with an older child during feedings, or sit near the television and watch a show together while baby eats.

Set Aside Special Time

With all the attention a new baby needs, it will be easy for your little one to get lost in the shuffle. Make sure parents have some special time to spend with the new big sibling without the baby present. Those first few days at home can be difficult. No one is sleeping properly and it’s likely your routine has been thrown out the window.

Enlist the help of a relative or close friend to do some fun things with your child while the household adjusts. Better yet, get someone to watch the baby and take your older child out for a little while—for a walk, an ice cream, or a visit to the library.

Talk about how proud you are of your child for being such a great big sibling and don't forget to ask if they have any questions about what is going on.

Focus on Both Kids

Sometimes, you may want to draw attention from the new baby and put it back on your big kid. Encourage visitors to occasionally talk with your child about anything but the new arrival. Discuss school, friends, activities—anything that is important to your child.

Some kids may welcome the new sibling with open arms and never express any discontent. Others may say hurtful things. Most fall someplace in the middle. It’s important to be patient as your little one adjusts. Encourage them to talk about how they are feeling through words or pictures. Try to relate. If the baby won’t stop crying, tell your child that it can be frustrating for you to hear, too.

Priority number one is to make sure your child feels loved and needed. Adding a new member to the family will affect your child in a big way, but ultimately a positive one. They are getting a new sibling, but hopefully, they are also gaining a lifelong friend.

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