Dear Dr. Debbie,
We have a beautiful and bright three-year-old who is about to become a big brother. He seems genuinely interested in the baby, having seen several friends add a baby to their families.
I think he has some idea of what a baby is like, but I don’t think he can imagine how his life is about to change. How can we prepare him and help him cope with this transition?
Very Big Belly
Lots of changes are in store – short term and long term. The more you can prepare ahead, the better you can deal with the challenges.
What’s His / Her Name?
Even if you haven’t settled on names yet, use a temporary name when referring to the baby. “Wiggler” will do. This helps your older child understand there is a person under that bump in your clothes. He may come up with his own name for his sibling, which may endearingly last a while after the baby is born. Naming the person who is taking up room on Mommy’s lap helps him get used to sharing you, too.
Don’t worry if the baby’s actual name is too difficult for Big Brother to pronounce. He may stick with a pet name the baby comes to recognize and respond to as they develop their own ways of interacting with each other.
When Can We Play?
There is lots to look forward to with having a sibling – someone to be silly with, someone to have adventures with, someone to snuggle with for bedtime stories – but this doesn’t happen right away. At age three, your son is mostly concerned with today, and maybe a little bit with tomorrow. You will, of course, have visions of happy times in the coming years between the two of them, but be sure to plan for ways your three-year-old can interact with a newborn.
The first week or so there’s not much time for play between eating and sleeping – which often overlap. But you can coach the big brother to do fun things with the baby as his or her alert time grows. Your three-year-old can: sing songs, make funny faces, try the “tongue thrust” trick (most newborns will imitate when your stick out your tongue!), recite a well-read book to the baby by looking at the pictures, play peek-a-boo to elicit a reaction, blow a “gentle” raspberry on the baby’s arm or belly. These interactions promote bonding between the siblings just as they promote bonding between a parent and baby.
Many new big brothers and big sisters enjoy having a baby doll for make-believe play in imitation of their parents. Your son can feed, bathe, dress, rock, and push his doll in a stroller as a way to connect with you and the baby while your hands are tied with caring for the actual baby.
That Was Mine!
A great piece of advice I heard from a second-time Mommy is to go through all the baby things you already have well in advance of the sibling’s arrival. Identify some keepsakes that your firstborn should hold onto as long as he likes, such as well-loved stuffed animals. Other objects may also hold special value to you or to him, such as a spoon or a blanket, especially if they were gifted by a grandparent. The items he no longer needs can be donated to a charity or taken to a consignment shop. Then when the time comes and you need some things for your new arrival, economize with purchases from the consignment shop with great buys that once belonged to some other child. Even though your children will have to share many things, they should each have some things to call their own.
Taming the Green-Eyed Monster
The hardest transition for your son will be the fear of displacement as the apple of your eye. By necessity, a baby will take a lot of your time and attention. Fortunately, a three-year-old is motivated to be more independent (although he still needs to be babied at times!). So put the things he needs in his reach so he doesn’t have to go through you to reach them. For example, label the lower drawers on his dresser with pictures so he can pull out his pants, shirts, and underwear by himself while you are holding the baby. Place serve-yourself snack items on lower shelves in the kitchen. If he can open the refrigerator by himself, make a habit of keeping pre-filled covered cups of milk or juice and easy-open containers of cut fruit, etc. in a special spot for him to retrieve. These will be very attractive when you sit down to nurse the baby.
You will learn to accommodate dividing your attention between two little ones, one trick at a time. For a while I could manage one child in the Snugli with the other riding piggy back. We graduated to a wagon for neighborhood walks. Bath time and story time also became two-for-one deals as I managed to administer these to both children simultaneously. Friends and family members can fill in gaps for your attention, especially while you are getting by on precious little sleep.
Transitions are less stressful if some things stay the same. As best as you can, maintain your son’s daily routines, including going to preschool or just playing with friends. His wider world outside the family goes on just as it has. A special note, however, is to guard the baby against germs in the first three months. Breast milk provides some immunities in the first couple of weeks, but you should be vigilant about handwashing and general sanitation practices with your son – as he comes and goes in his social world – as well as for visitors to your home. Your son can be taught to say, “Shake the baby’s foot, not his hand” when well-meaning adults and children threaten exposure to their potentially germy hands.
Congratulations on this next phase of your parenting journey!
Deborah Wood, Ph.D. is a child development specialist with degrees in Early Childhood Education, Counseling, and Human Development. Workshops for parents, teachers, and childcare professionals can be found at: drdebbiewood.com.
Click here for more parenting advice by Debbie Wood.
What do you think? Email your comments or questions to Dr. Debbie at editor[at]chesapeakefamily.com