Welcoming a new baby is an exciting family transition but it can be difficult for a child to make sense of the changes that take place before, during, and after this major life event.
Some people have described the arrival of a new baby as a child’s first trauma. By giving your child advanced notice, showing sensitivity to their feelings, and following some of the tips below you will be providing the reassurance and support your child needs to adapt to this family transition.
5 things you can do to help support your child as they transition to having a new baby at home
- Pick a daily (non time consuming) tradition and keep it going once the baby arrives
- Acknowledge and support their feelings
- Expose your child to babies before your baby arrives
- Manage aggression and set limits
- Understand that it’s a long game with ebbs and flows
Pick a daily (non time consuming) tradition and keep it going once the baby arrives
It can be something as simple as watering a plant together, feeding the fish, or getting the mail. Enjoy this simple activity together, distraction free, each day in the weeks leading up to the birth. Then, continue with it after you are home with the baby, and whenever possible, without the baby attached to you. The continuity will provide reassurance and will create a space that is your big kids’ and yours.
Acknowledge and support their feelings
This one seems obvious right out of the gate but it’s easy to slip into reactive mode when your own anxiety is flying high or when you are exhausted and prone to losing patience with your now “big kid.” It’s important to stop and help your child label their feelings. You can also do this by sharing stories of how you felt this way once and allowing your child to imagine and wish for the impossible (“I wish this baby was never born!”). By acknowledging these feelings, and not appearing shocked by outlandish statements, it lets your child know that you understand them and that it’s OK and normal to have these feelings.
Expose your child to babies before your baby arrives
Visit friends who have babies and observe them with your child. Notice together what the baby needs, what they are doing, who’s caring for them, and see what parts of the baby’s experience are most interesting to your child, if any at all. This will provide you with some clues as to whether and how to involve your child in the baby's care when they arrive. If you don’t have access to any babies, or even if you do, read your child books with real photos of babies in them. Research has shown that, especially with young toddlers, books with real photos help children to process and make connections between the book’s content and real life. Some books about welcoming new babies with real photos include The New Baby by Fred Rogers and The New Baby at Your House by Margaret Miller.
Manage aggression and set limits
This is a big change for your child and they are likely going to be acting on some big feelings to match it. This is them attempting to communicate to you that they need connection. It is important to show understanding and then label the feeling behind the behavior, but then you need to set the limit.
Being emotionally responsive does not mean letting aggression slide. You might say: “It looks like you are mad that the baby is needing Mommy’s full attention right now. I believe you that it’s hard to share me. But I won’t let you do anything unsafe. You may not throw stuffies at the baby. You can throw them in your room, Daddy can join you in a few so you have someone with you, or you can stay here with me and color or play with LEGO while the baby is eating.”
Understand that it’s a long game with ebbs and flows.
Sometimes the jealousy seems to last forever, and in some ways, it does. But there will be plenty of magical sibling moments along the way as well. Jealousy won’t be the only thing that ebbs and flows: There will also likely be regression on the part of your big kid. Be prepared for potty training regression, sleep regression, and baby talk too. If you don't see these things at first but then they emerge months into the baby’s arrival, that’s normal too. Just let your child know that it is OK, it’s normal, and that you are there to help. Then, try to stick to your routines as best you can. They will get back on track.
Bringing home a new baby can be difficult for everyone. Change is hard. Try to find some routines, don’t oversell the baby to your child, and give everyone (including yourself) a bit of grace during this tough transition time.
Good luck, you got this!