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Preparing for a new sibling: tips to help your toddler adjust to a new baby

If you have a second baby on the way, you may be wondering how best to help your toddler (and yourself) adjust and welcome the newest addition to the family.

I consulted with Elyse Eberstein, MSW, LE, a mom of two, who helps expecting parents at the Pump Station in Los Angeles prepare for the arrival of a second baby. She shared some suggestions for the run-up to birth, the hospital experience, and life in the early days of second-time motherhood.

Before baby

  • If your child is younger than two, there’s no need to tell her early on about your pregnancy. Toddlers may be interested in snuggling baby dolls and pushing them in carriages, but they’re not going to understand the implications of a new baby joining the family. Before two or two-and-a-half, you don’t have to keep it secret but don’t expect the information to mean anything to your child. “Nine months is an eternity for a toddler – possibly half her life,” says Eberstein. She’s not going to wrap her head around the abstract concept of a baby’s eventual birth.
  • Be aware that your energy can change as you near the end of pregnancy, and your toddler may pick up on that. Your focus will shift to thinking about life with a newborn as your due date nears – realize that the older sibling might feel the redirection of your attention.
  • You’re allowed to mourn the loss of a certain kind of lifestyle with just your toddler. It’s important to acknowledge what the one-baby chapter of your life has meant to you, your spouse, and your toddler, and to recognize your feelings about that chapter closing. You may be thrilled about the new addition but don’t forget to stop and process the fact that life as a special threesome will be no longer.

The birth

  • Create a way to celebrate your first child. Eberstein suggests making a book of your older child’s birth before your due date: a picture of you pregnant with her, photos from the hospital of her first days and all the people who visited and held her. It’s a nice way to level the playing field, help her understand what to expect, and assure her that she had the same attention and ceremony when she was born. You can make a book with a service like Snapfish or just paste photos into a simple album for her to flip through.
  • When your toddler first comes to the hospital, remember that she’s coming to see you – the baby may be an afterthought. “She hasn’t seen you in 24 to 48 hours, so protect that,” says Eberstein. Try to limit the number of people around when your child arrives. Keep it to you, your spouse, and child.
  • Instead of having your toddler walk in to see you nursing the new baby, consider putting your baby in the nursery just before your toddler arrives. Have some special catch-up time and when it seems natural, go and get your newborn together. That way your toddler is involved in bringing baby into the family. Try not to think of it as a photo op of the new siblings; your toddler may be curious about the tiny, wriggly baby, but she probably just wants to be with her parents at this point.
  • If you like the idea of exchanging gifts between siblings, go for it. Eberstein says that her toddler “gave” her little newborn brother his first lovey. Years later she still talks about that fact, and it means a lot to her that she was the one to gift him with such an all-important item.
  • When it’s time for you and the new baby to leave the hospital, have your older child come to meet you. Dress the baby together, get her ready to leave, and then drive home as a family. Chances are it will feel better than seeing you walk through the door, new baby in tow.

Life with two

  • Remember the days of sequestering yourself to nurse for hours with the first baby? This time, when your toddler is home, instead of parking in a glider, consider feeding the new baby on the couch, where you can invite your toddler to be a part of it. Get some food for your toddler and make it special snack time for everyone.
  • Spend special time with your toddler, and make sure to label it. Let your older child hear you saying to everyone in the house, “I’m spending special time with Emma now, so I’m not available.” Even if it’s for 10 minutes, it means the world to your child.
  • Talk out loud about needing to divide your attention. When you’re helping your older child use the bathroom, say to the newborn (who doesn’t have a clue what you’re talking about, but it’s okay – this is for the benefit of the toddler), “I’m helping Emma right now, so I can’t nurse you until we come back from the bathroom.” That way, when you say it in reverse – telling your toddler she has to wait while you help the newborn, it feels like equal treatment.
  • Reminisce about the threesome. It’s nice to honor the last chapter by saying things out loud to your toddler like, “Remember when it was just the three of us?” and laughing about memories or things you used to do together.
  • Try to have open arms to greet your toddler. Before you hear her coming in the door, see if you can set the baby down and have your arms free for a welcome hug and kiss.
  • Get comfortable with the idea that sometimes, your newborn will have to wait. You may have jumped at every peep from your first child, but with a toddler in the house it’s going to be near impossible. Let yourself off the hook for this and know that you can’t be in two places at once. You have two sets of competing needs – you’ll do your best, but inevitably someone will be unhappy about it. Let that be okay.
  • Remember your toddler is still a baby. She’s walking, talking, and wearing clothes that seem giant next to your newborn’s, but don’t overestimate her independence. Eberstein says that some parents get frustrated that their older child is needy or difficult, but it helps to check in and makes sure you’re not expecting more from your child than she’s developmentally capable of.
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