To prepare a toddler for a new baby in your home, you need to start early and start smart. Having gone through this process eight times, I'm thankful to say that the transitions have gone very well in our household. I'd attribute this due to the time we spent prepare our toddlers for the new baby's "big arrival".
"Handle this child carefully," the child specialist said to the mother. "Remember, you're dealing with a sensitive, high-strung little stinker."
--L & N Magazine
That is not to say that it was always 100% smooth sailing. (That might be too much to ask of a little person.) I can say however, that our toddlers never exhibited anything other than love and gentleness toward their new baby brother or sister.
If you really want to know how our toddlers exhibited difficulty with the addition of a new baby to the family, look for the green box at the end of this article. There I will share more than you probably want to know ;-)
Step 1 - Planting the Seeds to Prepare a Toddler for a New Baby
Preparing for the addition of a new family member needs to begin long before the trip to the hospital, but not too early. Depending on the age of the toddler, it is unlikely that the child will fully comprehend what is about to take place. Add to that, a toddler's ability to comprehend time is very limited, so attempting to garner excitement in your child too early may result in frustration if the event is talked about for months and months, but "never" happens.
With this in mind, you can easily do things that will help pave the way, without pointing at a specific event or telling the child what will be happening. I call this "Planting Seeds" about the future.
Spending time with other babies.
Giving your child a "baby" of her own and help her pretend to care for it.
Spending time looking at photos of her as a baby, and talking about what was needed to care for her, as well as her limitations when she was newborn ("You cried all the time, and I held you a lot." "You spent so much time sleeping that I wondered if you would ever wake up and look at me." "You didn't eat food, but only drank milk." "You made Mommy sooo tired because I had to take care of you at night.")
Transact any new room or sleeping arrangements, so that it is totally unrelated to the potential "usurper".
Talking about "someday when we have another baby".
Step 2 - Making the Announcement to Your Toddler
Parents need to decide, based on the child's age and maturity, when the right time to make the child understand that there will be a new member of the family. It is likely that your child has already heard you talk about "the baby", but until you put it down on their level, they may not understand what it means. If your child is less than 24 to 30 months, I'd recommend that you wait until the last trimester to make an official announcement to your toddler.
You might think that it would be impossible to hide a 5 month pregnant belly from your two year old, but truly most don't seem to "get it" without having it spelled out for them. If for some reason your toddler does question you about your size, you can then make the call as to whether or not the timing is right to start the countdown.
Step 3 - Preparing Your Toddler for a New Baby
Once your child understands that there is an actual future event, you can begin asking her to help you prepare. Things she can do:
Let her help you choose items to purchase for the baby.
Have her help wash, fold, and put clothing away.
Encourage her to "tell" friends and family about the coming event (at first you may need to tell her what to say, but eventually she may say something that may give you an insight as to her true understanding and feelings about the event).
Help her feel possession by calling it "her baby".
Allow her to feel the baby kick, listen to the heartbeat, and encourage her to talk or sing to the baby.
I even know a family who allowed their 3 year old to choose her new sibling's name. If you say that you will do this, be ready to follow through with something...unique.
Explain what will happen to her if you will be going to the hospital. Especially make sure that she understands that you may be gone for a time, and explain when and where she will see you. If she will be coming to the hospital, make sure that she understands that you will be in a strange bed and in pajamas in the daytime.
This is where each of my children have had the most difficulty adjusting. They have been brought to "see mommy and the baby", but upon entering my hospital room and seeing me in bed, have become clingy and afraid...of ME! I think this is because it is such an unexpected sight that it takes some adjustment.
Read books about babies, especially ones about family dynamics. One favorite in our home that has been well-used is, "I'm a Big Sister" by Joanna Cole ("I'm a Big Brother" is also available by the same author.) The simple story and illustrations have done a good job to prepare our toddlers for a new baby. The baby in these books is bottle fed however, so if you plan to breastfeed, it would make sense to have a book that touches on that topic, like "My New Baby" by Rachel Fuller.
Step 4 - Assisting a Toddler in Understanding Her New Role
While these things are going on, use the time to help her understand her role in the future.
What a big helper she will be - "Mommy will really need your help when the baby comes."
"I'm so glad that the baby will have you for a big sister."
"Real babies are very breakable, so you never pick them up unless Mommy or Daddy helps you."
Step 5 - Easing into the Introduction of the New Sibling
When the baby arrives, you need to help her see continued love and importance.
Be able to greet her for the first time without the baby in your arms. After you have re-connected, introduce the baby.
Ask guests to address her first before acknowledging the baby.
Plan ahead to be able to present a gift "from" the baby to her.
Step 6 - Helping a Toddler See Her Continued Importance in the Family
Have her help with everything she is capable of doing - getting a clean diaper, helping burp the baby, choosing clothes, throwing away the dirty diapers, etc.
Spend time snuggling without the baby, even if it is only 5 minutes here and there throughout the day.
Read books to her while you feed the baby.
Plan on extra "Daddy" time or "Grandma" time while you care for the baby or take a nap.
Allow her to help and praise, praise, praise her for her accomplishments.
Tell her what the baby "thinks" about her.
Allow her to hold the baby for as long as she desires to do so. You can prop pillows around the baby and under your child's arm. Be sure to stay close by, since your toddler will not understand what may hurt the baby. (You have seen how she treats her doll, right?)
While all of my toddlers handled their role of new big brother or big sister very well, they did exhibit some signs of stress over the event.
It may seem odd, but several of them became constipated for the first time during the days after their new sibling was born. Perhaps it was simply that they were out of their routine...mom not home, going to strange places, eating out-of-the ordinary food. Whatever the reason, this eventually "passed" 8-)
I hope you really wanted to know that.
--Laurie - The MNBC Mommy
Step 7 - Maintaining a Toddler's Security in a New Family Era
If your toddler begins acting up as a result of all the changes in her life, don't add to her insecurity by changing previous rules. Be sure to give her lots of extra love, but be firm in continuing to enforce ground rules that have been established.
She needs to know that nothing has changed, except that she now has a future best friend living in her home.
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