Every child, no matter how excited or well-prepared for the arrival of a new sibling, experiences some degree of concern, jealousy, anxiety, or insecurity about the prospect of having a baby to share Mom’s and Dad’s affection. For stepchildren, however, those emotions are amplified tenfold, especially when they see the expectant parent only for visitation instead of daily. Will my dad love the new baby more than me because the baby lives with him and I don’t? Will my stepmom still love me when she has a baby of her own? Will they pay any attention to me when I go there for the weekends?
Every stepfamily’s situation is different, and the degree of difficulty of the transition will vary based on the child’s age, living arrangements, and many other factors. But there are some basic things any family can do to prepare stepchildren for the arrival of a new sibling and make the transition a little easier.
The sooner you can bring the stepchild into your pregnancy, the better. Not only will the child have that much more time to adjust to the concept of a baby, but he or she can also share in your excitement and assist with preparations. “I remarried when my daughter was 10,” says JJ, father of now 12-year-old Danielle. “My wife and I were always open with Danielle about planning to have a baby at some point. Once we became pregnant, we told her right away to give her time to get excited about it.”
It’s best to inform the child of your pregnancy as early as you feel comfortable. Some couples feel better waiting until the 12-week mark when the risk of miscarriage drops dramatically, while others tell as soon as they see the blue line on the pregnancy test. “It’s best to wait until the safety zone of the second trimester when telling very young children,” advises Vicky Sullivan, a pediatric social worker at Montefiore Medical Center in Bronx, New York. “Explaining loss of a pregnancy to a young child would be upsetting for everyone, and while they’re likely to become scared or sad, they won’t really comprehend what’s happening.
Also, kids who are preschool aged have very short attention spans and aren’t likely to be able to remain focused on a pregnancy for an entire nine months. Waiting until the second trimester, when there’s physical evidence of a growing baby, will make it seem more real and keep young children engaged.”
Once the pregnancy is out in the open, include the child in any way possible. Take him or her shopping for the layette with you and let the stepchild pick out one special toy or blanket as a gift for the baby. Older kids can help paint or decorate the nursery. Come up with craft projects that kids can participate in, like stamping or stenciling a customized bodysuit or baby T-shirt.
If feasible, take your stepchild to an OB appointment to hear the heartbeat or see the baby on an ultrasound. Avoid taking any child to an appointment when a potentially frightening procedure will be performed, including an amniocentesis or even an internal exam.
While it’s important to include the child in the pregnancy, don’t allow all your time with the stepchild to be baby focused. That might serve to reinforce the child’s fear that the baby will rule the roost and the older child will be left out. Do select one baby-preparation activity to share each time the stepchild visits, to continue reinforcing the idea that a baby is really on the way, but make sure there’s plenty of time to do fun things that have nothing to do with your upcoming special delivery.
Be prepared that the revelation of your pregnancy will bring up lots of questions about the facts of life. Be sure to answer the questions with age-appropriate and simple answers, but never be dishonest or give misinformation for the sake of keeping things kid-friendly. For example, don’t let kids believe that babies come out through the bellybutton to avoid using words like vagina. Use correct language and terminology, and if a concept is too mature for a child, he or she will tend to just skip over it. When dealing with your stepchild, however, do make sure that his or her mom feels comfortable with you having this kind of conversation with the child.