Imagine this: The lights are low, candles are lit, there's a fire in the hearth. Your husband puts his arm around you and says, "Honey, I love you so much and you're so wonderful that I've decided to have another wife just like you." He's grinning expectantly, wanting you to share his bliss. What you feel is a distinctly different emotion.
Siblings Without Rivalry authors Adele Faber and Elaine Mazlish say that's just how some kids feel when they hear about a baby coming. My own son was not amused by that news. "No!" he shouted, his dark eyes stormy. I can't say for certain that at age two he understood what a new baby really meant, but he caught the gist of it well enough to recognize a threat to the Mama-and-Liam universe.
Not all kids are negative about an expanding family. Matthew Whitehorn pined for siblings. "He'd watch the kids across the street with all the cousins enviously," says his mother, Helen. When he was five, he finally got his wish: twins, a boy and a girl. "When I said we were going to have two babies, he said, 'Awesome!' "
Still, having suffered several miscarriages, the Newmarket, Ont., mom wisely saved the news until she was well into the pregnancy. By then, Matthew had guessed she was expecting, and the idea of siblings had slipped easily into the stream of family life. "Sometimes we cause more difficulty by making a really big deal about it," says Janice MacAulay, executive director of Family Resource Programs of Canada and a mother of four. "Knowing that life isn't going to change too much is more comforting. But they get the opposite message when they get the constant talking about baby, baby, baby."
There's another reason to delay the big announcement: Nine months is a long time for a child to wait. "As much as you want to be preparing your child for the new baby, making him feel part of it, this sibling has his own life going on," says Chaya Kulkarni, a child development expert at Toronto's Invest in Kids Foundation. Instead, go for understatement and a casual attitude to help your child accept a new baby.
Here are some age-by-age ways to do just that.
A new baby is a fairly abstract concept for a toddler. Wait until you're showing before sharing the news and don't bother with long discussions. Try these simple activities to make it real:
- Bring your bump to life by taking your toddler to your prenatal checkups and letting her hear the baby's heartbeat. At home, place her little hand on your belly to feel her new brother or sister moving.
- Get into babies by pointing out pictures of them in magazines and visiting friends or relatives who have infants. "Point out features of a newborn, how soft the hair is, the tiny belly button and toes, and the little diaper," says Joan Rom-Colthoff, who coordinates the childbirth education program at York Central Hospital in Toronto. You can also use this opportunity to show your toddler how to be careful and gentle around babies.
- Let your child in on the pre-baby prep by creating a welcome-baby card together.
- After the baby comes, remember to share the wealth. Have a few small gifts on hand for your toddler when visitors forget a big-sister/brother present. Don't forget to share the spotlight too: Help direct visitors' attention to your toddler, pointing out things that she has done recently.
- Leave daddy (or another loving caregiver) in charge a few times a week while you bow out for a while. That way, when you're busy with your newborn, your child will already be used to hanging out with daddy.
- "Recognize that the older sibling will go through upset periods, and accept that negative feelings and demonstrations of anger are normal," counsels Rom-Colthoff. "Be a little more open-minded, a little more accepting of a wider range of behaviour, knowing that you have a newborn in the house."
Three- to five-year-olds who may enjoy some independence through kindergarten or playdates might mistakenly think that a new baby means instant playmate.
When Carolyn Monaghan corrected this assumption for her daughter, Heather, the three-year-old was suddenly less positive about the new family member. "At one point I was struggling to get out of the car and said to her, 'Oh, won't it be great when this baby's out?' " remembers the Langley, BC, mother. "And she said, 'No, Mommy, I would like that baby to stay right where it is because I don't like them, remember?' " Even after little Aaron arrived, Heather wouldn't look at him and said that he stunk. In the first photograph of the pair together, she's plugging her nose.
The breakthrough came during a visit to Monaghan's parents, who had video tapes of Heather as a baby. "Once she was able to see us in the video making the same fuss over her that we made over Aaron - picking her up when she cried, nursing her and playing with her - that was when she finally clued in," Monaghan says. She began "playing with" her brother shortly thereafter.
Even before the birth, reminiscing over photos of your preschooler as a baby is good preparation. Other ways to help include:
- Enlighten her by answering any and all questions as they come up. You might even inspire some if you get her to help unpack baby clothes or clean the infant seat.
- Make the baby more real for your child by reading picture books together about new siblings.
- Concretely describe what will happen when the big day comes. "We'd say, Auntie Carol and Uncle Terry are going to come stay with you when Mommy goes to the hospital," recalls Rosemary Fex, an Oxdrift, Ont., mother of four. "They always knew what to expect."
- After the baby arrives, remember to give your preschooler extra hugs and kisses. "Kids will be very aware of the close physical bond that a breastfeeding mother has with her newborn," says Rom-Colthoff. "They need to get some of that closeness and be reassured that it's there for them as well."
- Try to make time for one or two of the things you routinely do with your older child - like bath or story time - rather than passing off all big-kid duties to dad.
- Escape together. Getting out with just your preschooler gives you both a nice break while also providing you with some perspective - an easy thing to lose with a baby in the house. Seeing your child at the park or the mall may help you remember that he's still small - not quite the big kid he seems next to your newborn.
Their growing independence means kids this age have less trouble sharing mom and dad than younger kids do. But a new baby still packs an emotional punch. Taber, Alta., mother Theresa Loewen remembers her seven-year-old daughter Tonya's reaction to her new brother: "She'd say, 'People used to say I was cute. Now he's got all the cute.' "
While you should wait for your child's cue when it comes to talking about the baby, you can gently guide your conversation in that direction:
- Scour your library or local bookstore for kid-friendly reading about pregnancy. The information you share may help your child open up and share his feelings about the coming baby, or he may ask questions he was uncomfortable with before. Be prepared, though: Some school-agers may be riveted by fetal development, while others may be revolted.
- Talk about the baby as the family's and try to include older siblings in the trip home from the hospital. Fex and her husband have always made a point of arriving home as a family. That way the new baby doesn't seem an invader. "I remember Albert carrying the car seat with Orren inside and Tessa and Emma-Leigh both having a hand on the seat, helping dad bring their new brother home," says Fex. "They got to bring their baby home too."
- Hear what your child is not saying. When kids don't talk about the new baby at all, they may be struggling with the idea. Kulkarni encourages parents to give kids breathing space, but still offer opportunities to talk. "Even if you're not connecting to that older child, somebody else might be," she says, "whether a teacher, school counsellor or another parent."
Nine- to 14-year-olds may sometimes seem caught up in their own busy lives, but they still realize a new baby will bring big changes. Tonya Loewen, who was 15 when her mom announced she was expecting her third, was "very opposed," says Loewen. "She felt that this baby would interfere with our going out on a movie night, that we wouldn't be able to do the things that we were doing before."
Being sensitive to older children's concerns is crucial, says Kulkarni. Here are some ways to show your child you take her worries seriously.
- Discuss realistically how the baby will affect your child's life - everything from drives to the mall to how loud she can play her music. Tonya and her mother frequently discussed the new baby's impact on their lives because the 15-year-old had so much trouble with the idea. Teens might want to talk about their parents' expectations around babysitting, for example.
- Ease her into her older sibling role by letting her help get things ready for the baby - setting up the crib, cleaning up the change table, digging out the old baby clothes and toys. Be sure to let her know how much you appreciate her big-kid capabilities.
- Don't push it. By all means invite your child to help, but let him become involved as he wishes.