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 next coming months, one of the most important jobs you'll have is to get your preschooler ready for the big role of becoming a sibling (for the first time or again).

No matter how your preschooler 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 the age of the preschooler (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 preschooler’s emotional development.

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

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

Here’s how to get your child ready and (hopefully) a little excited about becoming a big brother or sister.

During the Pregnancy

Sharing the Big News

There's no real tried-and-true method for telling a preschooler about a new baby. Think about how far along the due date is as well as the age of your preschooler. 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 preschooler who wants to know where a baby comes from is looking for a literal answer. Saying, "Inside mommy's belly," is likely enough. Let your child's questions be your guide.

Remind Her She Was 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 from when your little one was an infant as well as your preschooler’s baby book. Talk about what a cute baby she was and how much fun it will be to have another little one in the house.

Ask for His Advice

While you may not be brave enough to solicit name ideas from your little one, you should ask for your preschooler’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 his input. If possible, let your preschooler pick out one or two items that you purchase on the spot—a rattle or pair of pajamas, perhaps.

Getting preschoolers involved in the process will make them realize 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 mommy’s lap begins to get smaller and she can’t bend and pick up an older child, it’s likely that your preschooler may be angry as she feels like her life is being upended. No matter how your child reacts it’s important for you to listen carefully and not make your child feel badly if she’s not acting especially warm-hearted to the idea of a new baby.

Prepare, Prepare, Prepare

Chances are you are doing research on the new baby, help your preschooler to do the same. 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? Thinking about moving him over to a big-boy 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 his crib. Once the mother has entered the third trimester, it’s a good idea to hold off on introducing any new major aspects to your preschooler’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 co-sleeper.

Unraveling Medical Mysteries

Chances are your preschooler associates the hospital and the doctor with being sick. It’s important to assure her that going to the doctor is important for pregnant mommies and that nothing is wrong. Let her accompany you on your visits; she’ll 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 she might have.

If possible, let preschoolers 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 them to ask questions and do your best to answer them, keeping sparse on the medical details of childbirth. You don’t want to worry her needlessly about something she couldn’t possibly comprehend.

Keep Some Focus on the Big Sibling

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

Baby, You’re a Doll

A good idea for younger preschoolers, try purchasing a baby doll similar in size to a newborn. Let your little one practice holding, changing and feeding her “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

Get up Close and Personal With the Real Thing

If you are lucky enough to know someone who has recently had a baby, see if your preschooler 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, feeding, or bathing 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 obviously, but the nurses 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 mom (and dad) have to go to the hospital. Explain who will be caring for them and that not only will they be able to talk to mom on the phone (if this is an option) but that they’ll be able to visit mom 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 preschooler.

Visitor #1

Let your preschooler be the first member of the family to meet the baby, as close to its birth as possible. And keep the meeting private, just immediate family members so your child can react naturally, without a crowd present. The first time your preschooler sets eyes on a new sibling could be overwhelming emotionally for him, so it’s important that you stay in tune with what he’s feeling. When it’s time for other visitors to stop by, let your preschooler play whatever role he’s comfortable in. 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 him for a walk or maybe get a snack, just to help him get away from it all for a little while.

Celebrate! (With Presents)

Above all else, a new baby is a cause for celebration. Be sure to let your preschooler pick out a gift to give to her 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 preschooler. Stock up on little items like coloring books, crayons, stickers, and small trinkets to bring out.

New Life at Home

Recognize Regression Is Regular

As your family adjusts to its new dynamic, remember that your “big kid” may not be thrilled in her new role yet. Don’t be surprised if she asks to drink from a bottle or nurse, has bathroom-related accidents, engages in “baby talk,” or even ask to sleep in the crib (especially if the crib was once hers). Try not to get angry; in fact, it’s important you don’t. This is your child’s way of expressing anxiousness about her role in the family. Just keep giving her extra hugs, and when she behaves like the big girl you know she is, heap on the extra praise.

Welcome “Help”

There are lots of jobs your preschooler can do to help you care for the new baby like get you diapers, push the stroller, or even assist in getting it dressed. It may take longer with the extra set of hands, but if your preschooler wants to be involved, welcome his efforts. There are, however, some things mom will do with the baby, such as breastfeeding, that will make older kids feel left out. Be sure to keep books that a nursing mom can read with an older child nearby or have mom sit near the television and let mom and preschooler 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 mom and dad 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 preschooler while the household adjusts. Just be careful that your preschooler doesn’t feel too removed from home, you don’t want her to think that she’s being left out of the action. Better yet, get grandpa to watch the baby and take your preschooler out for a little while—for a walk, a trip for ice cream or even to the library.

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

Recognize That There Is Life Outside the Baby

Sometimes you may want to draw attention from the new baby and put it back on your preschooler. Encourage visitors to occasionally talk with your big little one 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 her to talk about how she’s feeling through words or even a picture. Try to relate. If the baby won’t stop crying, tell your preschooler 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 preschooler 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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