Preparing for a Sibling
Question: I am 6 months pregnant. Our 3-year-old son, Terrence, isn't paying attention to the upcoming event. Should we be preparing him for the looming change in his life?
Answer: Terrence will experience a big change, indeed. Following are some suggestions to help him get ready for such a new life change.
How children pay attention
Children pay attention to important things in their lives in two ways. The first is to deal with it directly, such as by talking or playing. The second is to respond indirectly, which seems as if the child is not noticing the issue at all. These children may respond with actions or mood changes that are not obviously related to their life issue.
Terrence is one of those seeming-to-be-ignoring-something-important kinds. Sure, he has no real idea about what this whole baby thing entails. But he does see your excitement and the changes in the air. He knows something big is coming.
Understanding a new arrival
Although Terrence is wondering about what lies ahead, we are unable to know what he might be thinking. It is difficult to know what he has processed, what he has seen or been told. For example, he may have made exaggerated conclusions from brief contacts with infants, such as that they yell and cry all the time, or never. So our major recommendation is to share and ask — talk with him.
Bring up the new baby often, and ask him if he has ideas or questions. Being specific may help. For example, you can say: "Terrence, do you think our dinners will be a little different when the baby comes?" He may surprise you with his response.
Tomorrow is a long time away
Many parents emphasize the benefits of having a sibling. For example, perhaps you have told Terrence that he will be gaining a playmate. However, the far-away future is a vague place without much emotional meaning for a young child. Three-year-old children are comforted by what is happening now or very soon.
Just as you can generally take a child's worry away by saying something won't happen for a long time, having a friend a long time in the future does not provide much comfort. In fact, this approach can backfire because Terrence might expect a playmate on the first day.
Talk about the reality of the first days and weeks. Gradually tell him that the baby will sleep most of the time, won't be able to talk to him, and will cry sometimes and need Mommy or Daddy to come quickly to help. You can tell him how he will be able to help, planting the first seeds of how to be a good big brother.
Terrence will be expected to be a "bigger boy" after his sibling arrives. To keep the amount of change manageable, take steps now to address some of the upcoming adjustments. For example, if he will be moving rooms, do it well in advance of the baby's arrival. Since he will need to play by himself when you are tending the baby, help him spend longer periods of time playing alone. Focus on any developmental task that is on his plate, such as completing toilet mastery. He will have quite enough going on in two months!
Finding middle ground
Children grow when challenges are met successfully. They grow when stretched to find new solutions and capacities. If challenges are too simple, they don't have to stretch. If challenges are too hard, they learn the lesson that they cannot succeed. The birth of a sibling will likely be too much and too hard unless you actively work to bring the challenge back to a manageable middle ground.
Preparation is the best way to make the challenge manageable. You will come up with additional ways to help prepare your son. For example, you could consider programs for siblings that are offered by some birth centers. Check them out in advance to be sure they provide information your child is ready to hear and learn. You can also visit the home of a friend or relative with a baby and settle in for a while. Be sure to constantly ask if he has had enough, and understand that boredom or misbehavior may be his way of saying he is becoming overwhelmed.
Smooth acceptance isn't the goal of preparation. You can expect that Terrence will struggle with his upcoming challenge. Some children seem to smoothly accept their new siblings, and although that is fine for some children, it is not the gold standard you should try for.
You have an exciting time ahead, and with your support, Terrence will wind up with a double reward — a new brother or sister and new emotional maturity.
The Lucy Daniels Center for Early Childhood is a nonprofit agency that promotes the health and well-being of children and families. The question of the month may be an illustration or composite of questions parents have asked.