1. Parenting

Preparing Your Preschooler for a New Baby

Getting Your Little One Ready to Welcome the Newest Member of the Family

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Congratulations! Your family is expecting a baby! As you prepare over the next coming months, one of the most important jobs you'll have is to get your preschooler ready for the big role of becoming a sibling (for the first time or again).

No matter how your preschooler reacts to the news -- with joy, with anger or with seemingly no response at all -- it’s normal. A lot of it will have to do with the age of the preschooler (a 3-year-old won’t understand about the change in the family dynamic quite as much as a 5-year-old will) but in any case, learning about their evolving feelings and how they react to them is a big part of a preschooler’s emotional development.

Your best bet is to address the changes in your family before the new baby arrives but keep in mind, no matter how ready your preschooler may seem, once the baby is born, there will be an adjustment period. Here’s how to get your child ready and (hopefully) a little excited about becoming a big brother or sister.

During the Pregnancy

  • Sharing the Big News
    There's no real tried-and-true method for telling a preschooler about a new baby. Think about how far along the due date is as well as the age of your preschooler. Most kids under 5 have trouble understanding time so it's best to say the baby will arrive when the weather gets warm or around Halloween. If your little one asks for details, don't feel you have to explain everything. A preschooler who wants to know where a baby comes from is looking for a literal answer. Saying, "Inside mommy's belly," is likely enough. Let your child's questions be your guide.
  • Remind Her She Was a Baby Once Too
    When you are digging through the attic looking for baby clothes and gear you’ve put away for another day, be sure to pull out photo albums from when your little one was an infant as well as your preschooler’s baby book. Talk about what a cute baby she was and how much fun it will be to have another little one in the house.
  • Ask for His Advice
    While you may not be brave enough to solicit name ideas from your little one -- while pregnant with my third I was regaled with a selection of names culled from Playhouse Disney and Nick Jr. -- you should ask for your preschooler’s opinion on other important details like bedding, toys and even clothing. If you decide to register, bring your little one along (try to keep the trip short, you can always go back later and add items if you need to) and actively ask for his input. If possible, let your preschooler pick out one or two items that you purchase on the spot -- a rattle or pair of pajamas perhaps. Getting your child involved in the process will make him realize that he is an important, contributing member of the family and that the life of the new sibling is something he should be part of.
  • Expect a Little Moodiness
    It’s perfect normal for your child to have different feelings about the new baby day by day (or hour by hour). As mommy’s lap begins to get smaller and she can’t bend and pick up an older child, it’s likely that your preschooler may be angry as she feels like her life is being upended. No matter how your child reacts it’s important for you to listen carefully and not make your child feel badly if she’s not acting especially warm-hearted to the idea of a new baby.
  • Prepare, Prepare, Prepare
    Chances are you are doing research on the new baby, help your preschooler to do the same. Take a trip to the library and pick out some books that will gently explain what’s going on. Good titles include What to Expect When Mommy is Having a Baby by Heidi Murkoff and Laura Rader (HarperFestival, 2004) and The New Baby by Mercer Mayer (Random House, 2001) which addresses a big brother’s reluctance to welcome a new sibling.
  • Don’t Rush Milestones
    Is your preschooler potty training? Thinking about moving him over to a big-boy bed? You may want to hold off for a little while. You don’t want your little one to feel displaced because the new baby needs his crib. Once the mother has entered the third trimester, it’s a good idea to hold off on introducing any new major aspects to your preschooler’s life. Yes, the new baby needs to sleep in the crib, but for the first few weeks or months, you may want to consider using a cradle or co-sleeper.
  • Unraveling Medical Mysteries
    Chances are your preschooler associates the hospital and the doctor with being sick. It’s important to assure her that going to the doctor is important for pregnant mommies and that nothing is wrong. Let her accompany you on your visits -- she’ll probably get a kick out of hearing the heartbeat and seeing the baby through an ultrasound. Your OB will likely talk to your child as well and be able to answer any questions she might have. If possible, let her come with you on a tour of the hospital -- in fact many centers offer special classes and sessions for big-siblings-to-be. No matter what, encourage her to ask questions and do your best to answer them, keeping sparse on the medical details of childbirth -- you don’t don’t want to worry her needlessly about something she couldn’t possibly comprehend.
  • Keep Some Focus on the Big Sibling
    Preschoolers are self-centered, simply because they are still learning about their place in the world. So feed his ego a bit by talking about what a great big sibling he is going to be and how the family is going to need his help. As you decorate the nursery or baby’s sleeping area, you may want to consider changing some parts of your preschooler’s room if you think it will help -- perhaps a new bedspread or lamp.
  • Baby, You’re a Doll
    A good idea for younger preschoolers, try purchasing a baby doll similar in size to a newborn. Let your little one practice holding, changing and feeding her “baby.” Treat it as close to the real thing as realistically possible, taking it for walks in the stroller and even placing it in a car seat as the due date nears.

Next...Before Childbirth and at the Hospital

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