Bringing home baby: Helping your older child adjust to a new sibling
Welcoming a new baby to your family is an exciting time but it can also cause a lot of stress and worry for parents and children alike. After all, this new baby is going to change your family dynamic, forever!
In this article, we are sharing our top tips to make this a smooth transition for the whole family, including:
- When to tell your older child about the new baby.
- How to prepare your child before baby arrives.
- How to introduce a new baby sibling.
- How to help your child adjust after bringing baby home
When should I tell my older child about the new baby?
It’s up to you when you choose to share this news with your child but the timing can play a big part in how they respond to the idea of having a new sibling.
You might be super excited and want to tell your child the news straight away but keep in mind that 9 months can feel like a lifetime for children - especially younger toddlers. Telling a young toddler about their new sibling when you are still in the early stages of pregnancy can mean that their initial excitement and enthusiasm wears off by the time the baby actually arrives!
If you’re not physically showing yet, this can also make it difficult for younger children to conceptualize what is happening. Once your belly begins to show, it’s easier for them to understand, because they can “see” the baby growing each week (and will soon be able to feel them too!).
So for toddlers and younger children especially, it can be worth waiting a while before sharing this exciting news with them.
If your child is older though, they will have a greater awareness of the changes that are taking place during pregnancy. They may have noticed that you’re more tired than usual or you may have had morning sickness that was difficult to disguise. In this instance, it can be beneficial to share the news with your child straight away, mainly to reassure them that what you are experiencing is normal and nothing they need to worry about.
Telling your older child early on in your pregnancy also means they will feel more involved from the get-go and won’t accidentally find out the news from an overly excited grandparent or well-meaning neighbour! It also gives them more time to adjust to the idea of welcoming a new baby brother or sister, which is especially important if they have been an only child up until now.
How to prepare your child before baby’s arrival…
If your child is excited and cannot wait for their new sibling to arrive, GREAT! In that case, you may not need to do a whole lot of preparation beforehand. If, on the other hand, your child seems confused or anxious, they may need a bit more help to get used to the idea of a new baby joining the family.
Here are some things you can do to help your toddler or older child get ready to welcome their new baby brother or sister…
Get your older child involved
- Invite your older child to help you prepare for the baby’s arrival - shopping for baby items together, choosing a special outfit/toy/comforter, helping to set up the nursery etc.
- Involve them in decision making - who do they want to stay with while the birthing parent is in hospital? What are they going to pack for their stay? Do they want to meet the baby at the hospital or wait until everyone comes home?
Establish realistic expectations
- Explain what it will be like when the baby comes home - they will mostly feed and sleep, they might cry a lot, we’ll have to change their nappy, they won’t be able to play straight away etc.
- Read age-appropriate books that involve babies or new siblings.
- Look at their old baby pictures together and talk about what they were like as a baby.
- Visit friends or family who have babies so they can see first-hand what it will be like when their new sibling comes home.
- Role play looking after baby with their dolls or teddies.
Keep communication open and honest
- Talk to your child (in age-appropriate language) about how the baby is growing and what will happen once the baby is born - what will change, what will stay the same etc.
- Encourage questions. Toddlers and younger children probably won’t need much encouragement but some older children might hesitate to ask questions, especially if they are feeling anxious.
- Reassure your child that they are still important, they are still loved and that won’t change once the baby arrives.
Introduce them to their new sibling before the baby is born
- Let your older child choose a nickname for their baby sibling (our older child chose the name “Rainbow” so Baby Rainbow it was!).
- Encourage them to talk, read or sing to their baby sister or brother in your belly. From around 6-7 months, your unborn baby will be able to hear those external sounds and by full term their hearing will be much the same as an adult.
- Once your baby starts to move around, you can invite your older child to feel when the baby moves or kicks. If they would prefer not to touch your belly though, respect their boundaries!
Try to focus on one big change at a time
- If your older child is due to begin toilet training, either start that process a few months before baby arrives OR hold off until a few months after baby comes home.
- With a new baby on the way you might also be thinking of moving your older child out of their crib into a toddler bed now… BUT WAIT! If your child still fits comfortably in their crib and isn’t climbing out, we would actually recommend you hold off on this transition for as long as possible (you can read why in this article). If it’s unavoidable, try to make the move a few months before the baby arrives so your older child has plenty of time to adjust.
- Similarly, if you are thinking about having your older child start daycare/nursery once the baby arrives, even if it’s only a couple of days a week, you might want to consider starting this transition a few months earlier.
Introducing your older child to their new baby sibling
This is it, the moment everyone has been waiting for! You probably already have a vision of how this first introduction is going to go, with lots of smiles, cuddles, cute outfits and Instagram-worthy family photos. And that might be exactly what happens…. or it might not.
When my son (aged 3.5 years) met his younger brother for the first time at the hospital he refused to even come into the room! After a lot of coaxing, we got him into the room but there was absolutely no way he was going anywhere near the baby. The only photo we managed to get with him in the hospital was with his grandparents holding the baby and him standing on the bed behind them making his “angry” face!
It was definitely not what I had pictured in my head! We had done everything to prepare him for the birth, he was excited and couldn’t wait to meet his brother. But for whatever reason, that all changed the moment my son was born.
Unfortunately, you can’t predict how your child will react once their new baby brother or sister is born. So temper your expectations and don’t try to force them to interact with their new sibling. Respect their boundaries and give them time.
Here are some other tips to make this first meeting more successful:
- Don’t hold the baby straight away. Whether your child is meeting their new sibling at the hospital or at home, have someone other than the birthing parent holding the baby or lie the baby down in a bassinet or on a play mat for this first meeting.
- Greet your older child first. Don’t jump straight into “come and see your new brother/sister”, greet your child like you usually would, ask them how they are, tell them you missed them etc. Focus all of your attention on them for the first couple of minutes, then ask them if they want to meet their new sibling.
- Consider a gift exchange. If your older child has already picked out a gift for the baby, like a special outfit or toy, consider buying a gift in return “from the baby”. Obviously if your child is older they will know it’s not actually from the baby, but the gesture can still help to show your child that they are important and can help to prevent jealousy.
- Keep things brief. Young children, especially toddlers, have a short attention span and after seeing the baby it’s very likely that they will want to go and do something else! Don’t try to force prolonged interaction - if your older child has had enough, let them go and play and welcome them back whenever they want to see the baby again.
How to help your child adjust after bringing baby home…
Once your older child has met their new sibling, you might feel a sense of relief, like the hard part is over. The truth is, the hard part begins when you bring your new baby home! This is when your older child’s world, as they know it, gets turned upside down and you might start to see some changes in their behaviour as a result.
Just like you prepared your child before your baby’s birth, you can put some strategies in place once the baby is home to help ease your older child’s transition from “baby” to “big brother” or “big sister”. Here are our tips to make this transition as smooth as possible:
Be mindful of your language and expectations
Once there’s a new baby in the family, it’s very easy to fall into the trap of labeling the older sibling as the “big kid” and expecting more from them as a result. This can create unnecessary pressure and anxiety for your child. The truth is, it’s going to take time for your older child to ease into their new role as the “big” sister or brother.
As much as we might wish for it to happen, they aren’t going to suddenly become more mature or independent once their new sibling is home! Your toddler is still going to behave like a toddler and your older child is still going to need you too. So try to avoid using that “big kid” language and make sure the expectations you have for your child are age-appropriate.
Get them involved
Depending on your child’s age and how they are feeling about their new sibling, they may or may not want to be involved in the baby’s care straight away. If they are excited and want to help, consider giving them a special job to do like passing you things during feeds or nappy changes or helping you to bathe the baby.
If they aren’t so keen to help, you can still get them involved by asking for their advice or suggestions when it comes to the baby’s care. For example, “What do you think baby wants to wear today? What book should we read to baby? Should we do baby’s nap outside today?”
Try not to be disheartened if your older child doesn’t show much interest in their new sibling to begin with - after all, newborns don’t do much more than sleep, eat and cry! As your baby gets older and starts to interact more with the world around them, this should pique your older child’s interest.
Stick to normal routines as much as possible
Having a new baby sibling is going to be a big change for your toddler or older child and it’s going to take some time for them to adjust. Keeping everything else in their life as “normal” as possible can really help to ease this transition.
So if your child has been attending nursery or daycare, continue to send them there once the baby is born. You can reduce their days/hours if you like but the familiarity of going to daycare each week and being with their teachers and other children creates a sense of stability.
If your older child is at home with you and has a consistent routine when it comes to meals and nap times, stick to those as best you can. Babies and children thrive on routine and find it very reassuring to know what comes next in their day.
Keep things fair
When both of your children need or want your attention at the same time, someone usually has to wait their turn. It doesn’t always need to be your older child left waiting though.
When you bring your new baby home, you will likely find yourself telling your older child to “wait” or “hold on” multiple times a day while you tend to their baby sibling. To keep things fair, try to use this same language with your baby from time to time. So yes, this does mean telling your baby “hold on, I’m just getting your brother a snack” or “wait, I’ll pick you up as soon as I’ve helped your sister with this”. They won’t understand you of course and it might feel a bit silly but your older child will hear this language and recognise that, sometimes, the baby has to wait their turn as well.
Plan for 1:1 time with your older child
Although a lot of your focus will be on the new baby, especially in the newborn stage, it’s important that your older child is getting plenty of quality time with you as well. Here are some ways that you can achieve this:
- Stagger your children’s schedules so that the baby goes to bed before your older child. This will give you some 1:1 time to reconnect at the end of the day.
- Try not to do everything in the nursery or bedroom. Instead, you might want to feed your baby in the living room while your older child plays next to you or have your baby do one of their naps in the pram/stroller while you play with your older child outside.
- Plan a special 1:1 outing with your child from time to time. It can be as simple as going to the park together or you might want to do something more adventurous like see a movie, go to the beach or have lunch out at a cafe or restaurant.
So there you have it, our top tips to help your toddler or older child adjust to the idea of having a new sibling. We hope these strategies help to make bringing home your new baby an exciting and enjoyable experience for the whole family.
If your new baby is already here and you’re finding it hard to juggle the needs of both your children, our sleep consultants have shared some further tips in THIS article. For more personalised advice and support, subscribe to our Little Ones App to get instant access to our Village, where you can reach out to our certified sleep consultants day or night.
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