How to Prepare Your Toddler for a New Baby

By: Amy Nasamran, M.A., & Suzi Naguib, Psy.D.

The arrival of a new baby can bring many exciting changes for a family. Families often rejoice at the news of a pregnancy and eagerly prepare for the arrival of their newborn. Moms and dads alike often can’t wait to meet their newest family member!

Many of these changes can be difficult for older siblings to handle. Research has suggested that the arrival of a newborn sibling can be associated with behavior changes in firstborn children (Stewart, Mobley, Van Tuyl, & Salvador, 1987). The difficulties can be especially great for firstborns in the toddler years, who often still depend heavily on parents for attention, time, and care. Research has indicated that firstborn toddlers may begin acting out or even regressing in their development with the arrival of a new baby (Boyse, K., 2009).

How can you help your toddler adjust to life with a new baby sibling? Below are some practical suggestions to promote healthy understanding and adjustment.

  • Inform your child – Share the news about your pregnancy with your toddler. Tell your child months in advance or as soon as you begin sharing the news with other family members and friends. Your child should hear about the new baby from mom or dad rather than from another relative or having it be a surprise. Allowing your child enough time to process the change can facilitate greater understanding.
  • Help your child learn about pregnancy – Read children’s books or watch videos about pregnancy and newborns to help your toddler visualize and understand what’s happening and what to expect with the baby. At their developmental level, toddlers may have difficulty understanding something they cannot yet see, touch, or experience. There are several children’s books available that help teach concepts like how a baby grows inside mom’s belly to what life may be like with a new sibling. Reading books, looking at pictures, and watching videos can facilitate children’s understanding and expectations.
  • Keep things positive – Although preparing for the arrival of a new baby can be a particularly demanding time, be sure to stay positive when talking about pregnancy or the baby. Use positive words and talk about how exciting this time is and how happy your family will be to have a new addition. Your toddler will likely pick up on and reflect your positive attitude. Discussing the difficulties too often can put your toddler at-risk for stressing about baby’s arrival.
  • Teach your child what to expect –Let your toddler know that at first, the baby will eat, sleep, and even cry most of the time. Although it can be tempting to be excited about the future sibling relationship and playtime, it’s important for your child to know that the baby won’t be a playmate right away. Emphasize that the baby will need to learn how to sit up and talk, just like the toddler does.
  • Give your child roles and responsibilities – Including your child in the process can give them a sense responsibility and belonging. During the pregnancy, ask your child questions like, “What names do you like for the baby?” After the baby is born, your toddler may want to help care for the baby. Allowing your toddler to help the baby feel better when he/she is crying, entertaining the baby during diaper changes, and even pushing the stroller can promote a sense of responsibility, as well as inclusion in these family activities. Although it might slow you down a bit, giving your child responsibilities for the baby can help them feel included and even increase the amount of time you are spending with your toddler, instead of having him/her feel like your attention is solely focused on the baby.
  • Be sure to give little extra love and attention – Although much of your attention will be focused on caring for your newborn and helping him/her adjust to life at home, be sure to give a little extra love to your toddler. At their age, toddlers still love to get attention from mom and dad. Spend quality one-on-one time with your toddler whenever opportunities arise, such as while the baby is sleeping. It can also be helpful to set aside a special time each day that will be solely dedicated to your toddler. Knowing that there will be special time to get mom or dad’s undivided attention can help prevent potential jealousy or resentment towards the new baby. Let your toddler choose how to spend special time and follow his/her lead.
  • Keep routines as regular as possible – Keeping routines as normal as possible amongst the many new changes that are taking place can be helpful for your toddler. Continue to have your toddler attend preschool or daycare as usual, even if you feel guilty about sending your toddler away while you’re at home with the new baby. Major changes to the house (e.g., room assignments, etc.) should be done weeks before baby’s arrival. Additionally, if your child is experiencing major milestones, such as potty training or moving into a toddler bed, try to complete these activities before baby arrives or wait some time after the baby is born.

References:
Boyse, K. (2009). New baby sibling: helping your older child (or children) adjust. Retrieved from http://www.med.umich.edu/yourchild/topics/newbaby.htm.

Stewart, R. B., Mobley, L. A., Van Tuyl, S. S., & Salvador, M. A. (1987). The firstborn’s adjustment to the birth of a sibling: a longitudinal assessment. Child Development, 58(2), 341-355. doi: 10.2307/1130511.