Getting ready for a second child (or third, or more) means going back into high-gear prep mode: stocking up on baby clothes, setting up a nursery, going through all the hospital visits, etc. In all that activity, it can be surprisingly easy to overlook one of the most important parts of your life: your other children. Whether you’ve only got one other child at home or you’re juggling two or more children, it takes some real work and planning to help an older sibling adjust to a new baby. Your older child’s life will change as radically as yours will, but he won’t necessarily have the emotional tools to handle that change well. That’s where you come in. With the right guidance, you can help your child adjust to the new baby just fine. Here are some tips to remember:
Listen to their feelings (especially the complaints)
Your older child will have a lot of opinions about the baby. (A lot.) He will likely complain about your time being monopolized by the new child, the way the baby cries, and just the overall ways that life is changing. Don’t ignore these comments. Instead, let your older child vent and express himself to you. In response, talk with him honestly about what’s happening. Tell him you understand that the change is hard, that you still love him and that you know he’s still getting used to sharing his parents with a new person. If you ignore his complaints, you run the risk of teaching him to repress his feelings, which can lead to bad behavior or outbursts.
Ask for their input
Kids love choices because they present the illusion of control. (In other words, you won’t let your child choose any meal in the world for dinner, but you can let them pick between two pre-approved choices.) Carry this over when the new baby comes. Ask your child for input and “advice” when dealing with the new baby. The goal here is to help your older child feel included and like a valuable member of the family with opinions to contribute. By emphasizing his skills, you can help him feel like a team member.
Let them help out
Similarly, let your older child help with the new baby. Obviously, you can’t outsource infant care to a child, but you can let your older child participate in baths, diaper changes and other tasks that come with new-baby territory. This will give your older child a sense of pride and accomplishment; he won’t be fighting for your attention, but actively helping while he spends time with you.
Read books to your kids about the situation
Explaining the myriad of changes your household is about to go through will take some time. A great way to help this process is to read books about babies and birth with your older child. Talk about newborns, mommies and how families grow. Use these reading times as a chance to answer questions and encourage open talks about what’s happening.
Talk to them about the story of their own birth
Kids love to hear stories about themselves. When you’re preparing for a new baby, talk with your older child about what it was like when he was born. Tell him how excited you were, how much you looked forward to meeting him and how much he’s changed your life. Use that as a springboard for a discussion about how similar things will happen with the new baby. The goal is to help your child see the pattern of family growth, love and acceptance.
Set aside special time for your older child or children
It doesn’t have to be much — something small once or twice a week can work — but find room in your schedule for a special activity with your older kid. Some play time, park visits, story hour; whatever it is, make sure it’s a regular appointment. This way the older child won’t feel forgotten.
Don’t devalue your older kids
It’s inevitable that baby-related tasks, chores and medical visits will eat up a lot of your time. Don’t let this turn your older children into a lower priority, though. When you can steal a free minute without the baby — if the little one is napping or being looked after by the other parent — use that time to spend with your older child. It doesn’t have to be much, and it doesn’t have to be a major event. Something as simple as sharing a snack or talking about your day while you take a break will work just fine. It’s a way to show you’re still interested in the whole family, not just the new baby. Your older child will definitely appreciate it.
Let them become individuals
Don’t be too quick to force your older child to spend time with the baby. The older child will want to establish his own identity in contrast to the infant, which sometimes takes the shape of ignoring the baby altogether. Let this play out until the older child eventually changes his tune.
Don’t shy away from messy moments
The emotionally messy ones, that is. (You’ll already have plenty of physically messy ones with the baby.) If your older child has a total blow-up one day, let him cry it out and get rid of the bad feelings. There’s a good chance his inner turmoil has been triggered by the mass of emotions he’s feeling about the new baby. That’s totally normal, and you should encourage healthy displays and investigations of these feelings. This is going to be a big learning opportunity for everyone.
Expanding your family is a big deal, but it doesn’t have to be hard on your older children. Remember: they just want to be loved and acknowledged. Show them that they’re part of the family.