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There's nothing like explaining to a first child that they're no longer going to be the only one in the house. They are used to being the entire focus of their parents, and now have to adjust to sharing nearly every aspect of their life for the first time.
This is a change that will affect a child's life forever, so it is no easy feat figuring out how to break the news to them, how to include them, and how to ensure they don't feel side-lined. "It is important to include the older child in the process of bringing the baby home and adapting to changes in the daily routine," Dr. Mary Mason, internist and founder of Little Medical School, tells PEOPLE.
Parents won't be able to prevent all sibling rivalries, but they should put themselves in their child's shoes to understand what they're going through. "You have someone who sees you as the center of their universe, and they want as much of your attention as they can grab," explains Dr. Harvey Karp, pediatrician and founder of Happiest Baby. "On the other hand, giving your child a sibling is an incredibly wonderful gift — one they may not recognize at the time, but will give them a lifelong partner for endless fun and friendship!"
We spoke to a group of experts who shared their helpful hints on how to best prepare a child for their new sibling.
What’s the best way for parents to tell their older child about a new sibling?
At some point, your child is going to see the physical difference and know something is going on, so you can only put it off for so long. This is a life event that is going to change their reality as much as yours, so it's important to make them feel part of the proceedings. Denise Daniels, RN, MS, child development expert and creator of The Moodsters, suggests starting early.
"Begin the dialogue long before the baby arrives, so that you can manage your child’s expectations and let them know what’s in store," she tells PEOPLE. A struggle may occur if the child is too young to really understand what it means to have a sibling, but that doesn't mean they should be shut out. "About two months before your due date is a good time to start talking about the 'baby in Mommy’s tummy," Dr. Karp suggests. "By then, you’re clearly pregnant and your child will start getting emotionally prepared, just in case you deliver early."
"They see Mommy’s tummy and they hear you talking, so they know something different is happening," advises Daniels. "Let the little one rub your tummy and feel the baby kicking. Or find room in your (disappearing) lap so they can curl up and read a book with you. Have them talk to the baby, too; research has shown that babies can recognize their parents’ voices early on, from having heard them in utero, so why not siblings too."
What should parents do if their child begins to act out?
It will take time for a child to get used to the idea of a new sibling, so patience is key. "Parents' first instinct may be to get angry if your child begins to act out and even whack their new baby sibling with a toy," says Daniels. "However, it's important for parents to remember that their child is angry, too. Look at it from their point of view — this squalling intruder has invaded their happy home, where they held center stage."
As Karp points out, acting out is a completely normal toddler response. "Our little friends are hugely self-centered, so whenever you tend to the baby, he may feel “What about ME,” he tells PEOPLE. "What’s more, tots have a super-active, right brain, impulse center that makes it hard to hold back strong feelings (impatience, frustration, jealousy, anger…sound familiar?)"
The solution? First validate their feelings and then give the lesson.
Daniels suggests sticking to a script like, “I understand you’re feeling angry, and that’s okay. But it’s never okay to hurt the baby.” She also recommends having the child express everything they're feeling on paper or color their feelings — with red crayons for anger, blue for sadness, yellow for happiness. Karp says it's important for parents to acknowledge when their older child is doing a great job. "Kids love it when their good behavior is noticed," he recommends. "Ten times a day, make a point to catch your child being good. And, don’t forget the most powerful reward of all: a few minutes of one-on-one time with you!"
What can parents do to help their older child adjust to life with a new sibling?
Once the child knows they have a sibling is on the way, it doesn't hurt to start adapting them to the inevitable changes in their life. Daniels recommends pointing out the perks of being the 'big kid.' "When I told Hartley that babies can’t go down the slide, I was boosting her ego by emphasizing all the things she can do," she says. " 'The baby has to take a nap, but you get to stay up late.' 'This toy is too dangerous for the baby, but you can play with it because you’re a big girl.' "
Lindsay Powers, author of You Can’t F*ck Up Your Kids, suggests keeping an active dialogue about it. "My firstborn, Everett, was about 2.5 when I had another baby, Otto, and I created a little photo book to get Everett excited about it," says tells PEOPLE. "I also talked a lot about my growing baby bump, and how 'your little brother is inside."
Karp says teaching delayed gratification to the older child is paramount. "Start giving 'Special Time,' a little gift of 5 to 10 minutes of your undivided attention … that means no texts, emails, or baby brothers allowed," he advises. "This is a great way to build their ability to wait, which your toddler will need when you’re busy with feedings and diapering." Daniels also encourages reminiscing with them about their baby days. "Kids never tire of hearing stories about when they were born and how cute they were," she says. "Tell them how excited you were when they were born, and how everyone brought them presents. It’s a good way to prepare them for the attention the baby will be getting, but also to let them know how special they were and continue to be."
How involved should parents make their older child in the process?
This will be one of the biggest changes a child ever experiences, and they will be with you every part of the way, so there's no reason not to include them on the journey. Daniels points out the importance of giving your child a job during the process.
"Older children can offer suggestions for the colors of the nursery, or help plan a coming-home party," she says. "Younger ones may want to donate one or two of their stuffed animals or toys they don’t 'need' anymore." Karp agrees it's a good idea to enlist the older child's help to make them feel smart and important. "Before the new baby arrives, ask the big bro or sis their opinion on some of the choices you’re making," he says. "For example, let him help pick out a new stuffed animal for the baby’s room, or some of his paintings to mount on the baby’s wall. 'Do you think Baby Brother will like this star swaddle blanket or the striped swaddle blanket?' ”
Mason has a few ideas for making the older child feel like an active participant in their new sibling's life. "While an older sibling may not be able to change a diaper, they can mimic the diaper change the adult is doing with their own doll," she says. "Our Sibling Kit uses the power of role-play to allow the child to be a pediatrician and listen to the baby’s heart and track their growth. That is a very empowering experience for an older sibling and creates a positive interaction between the baby and the new sibling."
How should parents introduce their older child to his or her new sibling when they arrive home?
After months of discussion and preparation, it's a completely different ballgame once the baby is a tangible presence in their life. Powers explains how she went about the first interaction. "When I brought Otto home, I made sure to put him in a neutral place, his car seat, on our living room floor, so that Everett could meet him without me holding him — so there was no perceived favoritism," she says. "When you bring the baby home from the hospital, bring a little gift for the older sibling, 'from the baby,' " recommends Daniels.
Once the baby has joined the family, it can be a tricky balancing act to keep the needs of both children met. The baby will need constant attention, but it is important to ensure the older child doesn't feel reprioritized as a result. Daniels stresses the significance of continued one-on-one time with the older child or children. "Whether it’s Mom reading to the older child while baby sleeps in a sling on her chest, or Dad/partner taking them to the park while Mom and baby nap, it’s important that the older child still gets some undivided attention," she says.
Karp also suggests stowing away a few goodies to sneak into the hands of visitors who only thought to bring gifts for your newborn, and to remind them to play with the older child before gushing over the baby. "Don’t feel guilty about giving your baby a little less attention than your older child. That is exactly the right thing to do," he says. "Your toddler is the one who has lost the most … 100% of you. And, your baby will soon get an enormous bonus — something you never gave your first child — the fun and silliness of having a big brother or sister."
How can parents encourage their older child to be gentle with the new baby?
It takes time for a child to understand how delicate a baby is, and just how careful they need to be around them. They may want to act as a parent to the baby, and while it's imperative to keep them involved, it is about finding safe ways to make that happen.
"Once the baby arrives, you can make the older sibling feel special and important by naming them 'Mommy’s assistant,' ” suggests Daniels. "They can help bring the bottle or the pacifier, cover the baby with a blanket." The key is letting them know that certain tasks should be handled by a parent until the child gets to a certain age. "Perhaps draw the line at carrying the baby downstairs by one arm, as my 3-year-old son did when my daughter was an infant," Daniels admits.
Karp stresses the importance of positive reinforcement, but to still monitor the child's interactions with baby. "Rather than criticize your toddler when they’re too rough, try saying, 'Your little sister or brother loves to be touched softly like this … you’re good at that,' " he recommends. "Of course, you don’t want to tempt fate. Never leave a toddler alone with your baby. They may want to play too rough or try to carry the baby — unaware that real infants are heavier and wigglier than baby dolls."
How can parents prepare their older child for an adopted sibling?
For parents who are bringing home an adopted child, the key is to be honest with your older child and always speak about the process positively. "Emphasize that while this baby is coming into the family in a different way than they did, they are just as much a part of the family," explains Karp. "Still, just as you probably won’t go into all of the nitty-gritty details about conception when discussing a biological child with a toddler, you don’t need to explain all the ins and outs of your adoption … until they're old enough to understand."
Otherwise, Karp suggests preparing your older child just as you would for a biological brother or sister. "Give them a doll to practice with, enlist their help once the new child arrives, let them pick out a special toy for the new sibling, boost their confidence with praise, make time for Special Time," he recommends.
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