Has there ever been a time in your life when a new employee started in the workplace and they made you nervous? Or have you ever welcomed a brother- or sister-in-law into your family and it didn’t take too long for them to start cramping your style?
For both, it’s not because they’re bad people. It’s just that … well, they need to go away because you had a good thing going and they’re messing it up!
Your kid(s) might feel the same way about the announcement of a new baby.
“Dropping the news of a new family member is never easy,” says Zuzana Boehmová, a writer for the New York Times. “Your child faces a change in status, either as an only kid who becomes a sibling, or as a part of the hierarchy in the case of multiple children.” While speaking with experts on this topic, she found that anxiety around the announcement is nearly universal.
So what’s a poor parent to do when they have to break the news to an only child that they’re about to be “the oldest” or a group of siblings whose dynamic will change with the addition of another kiddo?
Total honesty: There’s a chance it will be awkward and tears will be involved. But what’s new with kids, right?
Here are some tips on how to work with your kids before, during, and after the birth of their new sibling.
Before the Birth
From the moment you see the positive pregnancy test until the baby arrives, you have lots of decisions to make about telling your other children about their new baby sister or brother.
It’s a big deal, for sure, but try to be as level-headed and natural as you can when you share the news with the children. “Rather than making it into a big, serious sit-down-talk moment (the ‘we are getting a divorce’ vibe), try to introduce the subject naturally,” says Boehmová.
And while you might think showering your kids with extra love and attention before the baby comes is a good idea, shoot for dependable, steady parenting. “Regardless of their age, when children feel tension or change, they interpret it to themselves: If my parents work harder to make me happy, perhaps something bad happened or is about to happen,” says Galit Nahum Leumi, a psychotherapist and family counselor.
The age of your children plays a big part in how you share the news with them, too. The Mayo Clinic suggests the following:
- Kids 2 and younger – There’s a high likelihood kids this age won’t have a clue what it means to have a new sibling. Help them grasp the concept by talking about the baby a lot and looking at picture books about babies and families. You can also wait until later in the pregnancy to tell them. Until they see mom’s belly growing, they aren’t going to understand that anything new is occurring. (Make sure to be the one to tell them, though. A neighbor or relative asking them if they’re excited about being an older sibling before you’ve had the chance to talk with them isn’t ideal.)
- Kids 2 to 4 – This is the time when jealousy could kick in. Toddlers are VERY attached to their parents, and a tiny screaming newborn coming in and taking the attention away isn’t something they may feel naturally excited about. Help temper that hesitancy by getting these kids involved in baby preparation: take them shopping, have them “help” setting up the baby’s room, and give them a doll or stuffed animal that they can practice holding or changing diapers on..
- School-age kids – Older kids aren’t immune to jealousy. Thankfully, their ability to communicate will make it easier to talk through their feelings and frustrations. Do all the things you’d do with toddlers, but one step higher in terms of involvement. This is also the time to point out the perks of being an older sibling, e.g., later bedtimes. You can also tell them about their new sibling earlier on in the pregnancy.
The First Visit
Announcing the pregnancy to your children is anxiety-inducing in itself, but many parents stress more about the siblings meeting for the first time. The desire for that Instagram-worthy moment where the older siblings angelically rock their new sibling and kiss them on the forehead is SO strong … and also highly unlikely.
“Don’t have high expectations,” says Tovah Klein, director of the Barnard College Center for Toddler Development at Columbia University and author of “How Toddlers Thrive.” “Some children are very excited. Some children completely ignore it or worse.”
Don’t have the photo op before everyone is ready. Ignore what you’ve seen other parents do on the internet or in your personal news feeds. This is your family. Do what’s best for everyone involved. If mom is still in pain from giving birth, wait to bring in the older siblings until she’s recovered. If the older sibling(s) are tired or in bad moods, wait until they’re feeling better to introduce them to the new addition. There’s no rule that says family photos must be taken within six minutes of a baby being born.
Try and let the older kids have some fun before and after meeting the baby. If they’re staying with relatives or a babysitter, ask them to bookend the baby meeting with a visit to the movies, their favorite food place, or playtime at the park. A fun-filled day can help set the tone for when they meet their new brother or sister.
A little bit of choreography is essential to that first sibling meeting. This is not the time to wing it. Andy Netzel with Fatherly suggests the following steps:
- Put the baby in a bassinet, not in a parent’s arms. That could send the jealousy vibes flowing right off the bat. (“That’s MY mom! Get out of here, baby!”)
- Offer the older sibling(s) a present from the new baby, but only if you think it will encourage affection toward the new baby. If you think your child is the type that will feel pressured to accept the new sibling because of the present, hold off. The older sibling may also see the new baby as an endless source of gifts, which is a bad idea for your bank account. As Boehmová hilariously puts it, “It might not be wise to introduce a baby with magical spending powers into the house.”
- Don’t put too much stress on the whole “big brother/sister” status thing. Because so much of the focus in the coming weeks and months will be about how adorable little things are, this may come to feel like more of a demotion than a promotion.
- Very little needs to be accomplished in the first visit. Regardless of how the siblings interact, they’ll have their entire lives to get to know each other.
Keep in mind that, if you’re having your baby in a hospital, it may NOT be the best location for your kids to meet. If hospitals are stressful for them or if coordinating such a visit adds lots of stress to your life, have the first meeting at home or another location where everyone is more likely to be in a good mood.
Adjusting After the Birth
Once everyone is home, real life begins. Everyone will naturally adjust to the new bundle of joy over the next days, weeks, and months, but here are some ways to help things along.
- Have siblings help – Keep giving your other kids age-appropriate tasks that help with the baby. Singing to them, holding them, and throwing away dirty diapers will help them feel involved and will give parents a much-needed break.
- Ask for help – Speaking of help, don’t forget to ask for it! Especially if this is your second child, the experience of raising two children simultaneously can feel overwhelming at times. Reach out to family and friends for help when you need it, and don’t feel bad about it for a second.
- The other kids don’t magically become adults – Your other kid didn’t magically gain new skills when their new sibling was born. “Often there is the expectation that a 3-year-old will suddenly be composed, patient, and start dressing and eating on their own,” says Galit Nahum Leumi, a psychotherapist and family counselor.
- Regression happens – Sometimes children regress or act younger after their new sibling comes home. This is a totally normal reaction to the stress of a new sibling and needs tolerance, not punishment. With a little love, attention, and time, they’ll come out of the regression all on their own.
- Don’t separate everyone – Sometimes, in an effort to avoid jealous behavior altogether, parents will keep the baby away from their sibling(s). That’s not productive or helpful for anyone. Do as much as you can with and around each other, including breastfeeding, playing, and eating meals.
Give It Time
Like any big family change, each member will respond to the addition of a new baby in their own way and adjust accordingly. Tears and jealousy are natural parts of this process, so don’t feel distraught if the process is rocky. Your new baby being a part of the family is a wonderful miracle … and their siblings will realize that eventually.