Welcoming a new child into your family, whether you already have a toddler or several older kiddos, can be equal parts joyful, emotional, and well, a struggle. Of course, you’re thrilled to have a new baby, but the reality is that the baby comes with some serious adjustment for the whole family, especially older siblings. There’s so much to navigate, from toddler feelings to more complicated family logistics. How you do support yourself and your older child through this big transition in a happy, healthy way?
If you’re wondering how to prepare your older child for a new baby, we got you! To learn more about gentle and respectful ways to prepare for and support your children through the arrival of a new sibling, we talked with Major Care trusted partner Michelle Felder of Parenting Pathfinders. Michelle is a licensed clinical social worker and mindful parenting expert. We deeply appreciate her perspective on all things parenting, so we asked her to share some tips and tricks to make this transition easier for everyone in the family.
Major Care: What are some common fears, worries, and struggles that parents have when welcoming a subsequent child?
Michelle Felder: The things that weigh on the hearts and minds of parents preparing to welcome another child vary from family to family, but there are some common worries. Some families worry about the logistics of having more than one child and are concerned about having the time and bandwidth to do all the things that taking care of a larger family requires. Some families have fears related to how their older child will adjust to this big change and worry about whether they’ll develop a positive sibling relationship or not.
Another common fear that I don’t think gets talked about enough is the fear of not feeling the same connection to the new baby as they do to their older child that they’ve known for a long time. Many parents wonder if they’ll love the new baby the same or if they’ll be able to develop as strong of a bond with them, but I’ve found that most parents are pleasantly surprised at how deep their capacity to love really is.
What are some strategies parents can do to prepare their older child (emotionally, mentally) before the birth of a new baby?
It’s so important to talk with your older child early and often about this change; you want to be sure to give kids ample time to process this new big information. If there’s a parent at home that’s carrying the baby, it’s best to let your older child know before the birth parent starts to show. If you’re adopting or using a surrogate, still let kids know as early as you can.
Be clear about what will be the same in their world and what will be different, and talk about what it’s like to have a baby at home. Let them know that babies need lots of attention and share typical baby habits like crying, sleeping, and spitting up, in order to prepare them for what life with a baby may be like. Read books about new siblings and make space for them to talk about how they feel. Especially for younger kids, if you have a friend or family member that had a baby, it can be helpful to talk about it and make the experience relatable for your little one.
Talk with your child about things that they want to show their new sibling or what they look forward to helping them learn. Your older child may be incredibly excited for their new sibling, or they may reject the idea all together and say they don’t want a little sibling – however they feel is ok! It can be comforting and reassuring to say, “You know what? There’s something very special that happens when a family grows – the love in your heart grows too, and you have so much new love to give! I love you so much, and when the baby comes, I’m going to keep loving you so much. There’s nothing and no one that can change how much I love you.”
Before the baby comes, try to spend as much one-on-one time with your older child as you can, and continue to carve out this special time with each other once baby arrives; even a commitment of 5-10 minutes each day of this special time together can work wonders to help ease your child’s worries and emotionally prepare them for the new baby.
What are some strategies for parents to ease the transition for their older child/ren after birth?
If you’re able to, when the baby arrives, have your older child bring a gift for the baby and have a gift ready from the baby to their big sibling.
Once they’re home, creating opportunities for your older child to help with the baby can be incredibly supportive; make them a part of the process of caring for the baby anytime you can. Think of an age-appropriate job that they can have to help take care of the baby; even cuddling next to you and singing to the baby while they eat is a beautiful way for them to help. Depending on their age, they can get supplies, rock the baby, help with diaper changes, or read to the baby.
When you’re with the baby, invite your older child in to sit with you. When you’re dressing the baby, it could be fun to ask your older child for their opinion about what they should wear. You could say, “Do you think the baby wants to wear the onesie with the elephants or the clouds today?” Or invite them to sing a song or do a dance to entertain the baby while they’re being changed.
What kind of expectations should parents have for older sibling reactions to new baby or for the development of the sibling relationship?
Every child is different, so each child will have their own feelings and reactions to the new baby. Your older child may be excited about the baby one minute and wish the baby would go away the next; make space for whatever feelings they have and let them know however they’re feeling is ok. If they say that they don’t want a new sibling, instead of saying, “Don’t say that!” or “That’s not nice!” say, “I’m so glad that you’re telling me how you feel. This is a big change and however you’re feeling about it is ok.” Be prepared for lots of questions and make space to answer them all honestly, but be mindful of oversharing.
Something else that’s important to keep in mind is that regression is common, so if you notice your older child reverting back to old behaviors and habits such as wetting the bed or having big emotional reactions to things they used to let roll off their back, respond with gentleness and empathy. Avoid shaming kids at all costs. See this new behavior as a clue that they’re in need of more time and attention.
Remember that you and your older child are likely going to have a different understanding of what this new baby means – although it may be exciting to you, to them, it may be harder to see all of the joys because they may be thinking about all that they think they’ll lose, have to share, or give up. It’s important to not negate this worry. These are legitimate concerns for a child to have about a new sibling, so validate those feelings. To your child, they’ve had you all to themselves their whole life and imagining having to share you can be really hard.
Reassure kids that there is enough of everything for them – enough things, enough attention, enough love. When it comes to their sibling relationship, it’s helpful to remember that your children are two unique humans, and some people get along beautifully while others don’t. It’s important to manage your expectations for their sibling relationship and not force it; it’s most likely that in time, their connection will grow naturally.
How can parents maintain a strong relationship with their older child(ren) after a new baby enters the picture?
Be intentional about carving out time to spend together. Find time each day to spend with your older child – and I know that it can feel hard to commit to giving your time to anything when parents are finding their groove with all that having a new baby entails – but this special time can work wonders to maintain your connection and strengthen your bond to your older child. Even 5 to 10 minutes can be transformative for your connection – and if you have more time, give it! – but I encourage you to make this time a priority. Having this consistent opportunity to connect with you will have a huge impact on how they adjust to this new change.
Create space for them to talk about how they’re feeling about being a big sibling – what’s it like for them? What feels good? What feels challenging? Is there anything that they’d like to be different? Listen to their feelings, validate them, and offer comfort and reassurance whenever you can. If there are activities that you do with your older child or special places you enjoy going together, keep those up as much as you can after the baby arrives.
Do you have any overall advice for parents?
How you feel about having a new baby will have a huge impact on how your child feels about it, so be mindful of talking about this big change in a positive way; any worries or concerns you have shouldn’t be a part of the narrative that your older child hears. It’s important to remember to give older siblings time to adjust to this big change and to support them in feeling all of the feelings they have about their family growing.
If you appreciated Michelle’s advice about how to prepare your older child for a new baby, check out her perspective on weaving mindfulness into everyday parenting moments. Be sure to follow her on Instagram @parenting_pathfinders too, where she shares wonderful parenting tips and strategies.
About Major Care: Major Care is a doula-led maternal health company on a mission to tackle America’s postpartum care gap. We blend the power of guided learning with the support of virtual postpartum experts to create a safer and more supported experience for parents while addressing a $14B+ problem for providers, employers and payers. The My Fourth app, which is free, blends self-guided learning with virtual care. It includes a postpartum prep toolkit and six full weeks of daily guides to life after birth, with videos and content covering physical recovery, emotional health, lactation, relationships, and baby care. The app also offers plans for texting and video sessions with a diverse team of on-call doulas and lactation experts.