1. Lay the ground
It’s never too early to start paving the way for a new arrival, but that doesn’t mean telling your toddler straightaway.
“Very small children can’t imagine something they can’t see, so hold the news back until you’ve started to show,” says child psychologist Kairen Cullen.
Better, then, to kick off with an indirect approach. “Lay the groundwork by encouraging your toddler to socialise, because mixing with others will help him to understand that he can’t always be the focus of attention,” Cullen says. She also suggests encouraging your child to help you with simple tasks, such as putting away the groceries or tidying the house. “This will help him develop a sense of independence,” she notes.
2. How to tell him
“What you say depends a lot on your child’s personality,” Cullen says. “But if you tell him you’ve got a baby in your tummy, he might think you’ve eaten it.”
Hook the news onto something your toddler will understand, like a friend’s newborn you’ve met. Or read him a book. Experts recommend Topsy and Tim: The New Baby, There’s a House Inside My Mummy and We Have a Baby — all available at www.amazon.co.uk. Then you can announce, “We’re going to have a baby in our family, too.”
If you know the baby’s sex or what you’re going to call him, share this. “It’s hard to hide this kind of information without your child sensing that you know something he doesn’t,” says Becky Goddard-Hill, child development trainer and author of How to Afford Time Off with Your Baby (£5.85, from www.amazon.co.uk). “Children cope much better with honest communication than they do with feeling uncertain.”
Some families find it useful to take their toddler to a scan to “show” him the new sibling, although experts are divided on the wisdom of involving a young child in medical procedures.
3. Gentle preparation
Try to show your child how a newborn behaves and what it means to be a big brother. Visit your friend’s baby again or reread the books. According to Cullen, Disney films work, too. “They tackle the idea of key characters coping with the demands of others, which is what having a sibling is about,” she says.
Feed your toddler simple chunks of information. “Telling him, ‘The baby won’t be able to play with you but you will be able to hold his hand,’ or, ‘He’ll cry a lot because that’s the only way a baby can tell us what he needs,’ will give him a sense of a newborn’s limits,” explains clinical psychologist Dr Mandy Bryon.
Use everyday situations as a cue to mention the baby. For example, “Look, there’s a baby. We’re going to have one of those soon.” It can also help to teach through play. “Use toys to create ‘families’,” Goddard-Hill suggests. “And encourage your child to touch your tummy and give the baby ‘cuddles’.”
4. The final countdown
Don’t leave any significant changes to the last minute. “If your child needs to move to a bed so the baby can have the cot, or he’s due to start nursery, make the transition six to eight weeks before the birth,” Dr Bryon stresses. “It’ll give him time to get used to the idea and he won’t associate the change with being displaced.”
Unless your child is too young to understand, make sure he knows who will look after him while you’re in hospital. If it’ll be someone he’s less familiar with, consider a few trial runs. Some children get clingy in the last weeks before the birth. “In which case, give your toddler plenty of love and attention, so he feels secure,” Dr Bryon advises.
Ask your child to choose a present for his new sibling, then secretly choose one the baby can “give” to him. “This last point is particularly important, as when the two first meet, it sends a message that the baby is not the sole focus,” adds Dr Bryon.
5. Coming home
Once the new baby is home, try to keep things as normal as possible for your older child and give him special attention when you can, for instance, have one-on-one time daily during his bedtime. “Playing with a 2-year-old might be the last thing you feel like doing when you’ve just got your newborn down for a nap, but even a small amount of focused attention can help a young child feel important,” Cullen highlights.
“And don’t be surprised if your toddler’s initial response to the baby is unfavourable. This is normal and no reflection on how their relationship will be in the future.”
Get your older child to sniff the top of the new baby’s head, as newborns release special chemicals called pheremones, from that spot. Regular sniffing is said to calm down aggressive instincts against the newcomer, and encourage the older child to be protective of the baby, according to Words That Work, by Alice Eaton.
Involve your firstborn in baby duties as much as possible. “Diaper fetching and showing ‘our’ baby to visitors will instil a sense of involvement and pleasure,” Cullen says. “But don’t forget that sometimes he’ll just want to feel like your baby, too.” So, keep those “big boy” cuddles on tap.
Photo: ING Images