As parents we teach our first children that they are the centre of the universe and that’s because, for the most part, they are the centre of our universe. When the second child comes along, though, that “centre of the universe” bit really comes back to bite us. So how do you make the transition from “one and only” to “one of many” a smooth one, especially while your first baby’s brain is still developing and lacks the emotional maturity to deal with feelings like jealousy in calm and rational ways?
Resist the Urge to Surprise
Babies and toddlers thrive on routine. Changes are scary. Surprises are even scarier. This is why you should never simply spring a new sibling on a toddler as a surprise. Your firstborn’s instinct will be to dislike and distrust the new baby and the last thing you need is to set up a massive sibling rivalry from the get go. Sibling rivalry happens all on its own. It doesn’t need help from you!
Float the Idea Early
As soon as you find out you’re pregnant, float the idea of a potential sibling past your first born. Be prepared to hear “no thank you” or to have the idea dismissed. Toddlers aren’t known for their tact. You don’t have to get definite about the idea yet—especially if your doctor hasn’t given the go-ahead to start telling people about the pregnancy yet. Just start talking about the possibility so that your first child gets used to the idea of hearing about other children.
Then, as soon as you’re sure the pregnancy is viable (as sure as anybody can be, anyway), tell your first child that there will be someone joining the family soon.
Talk About it Often
A toddler’s memory is spotty at best. He can remember you and places and things but it is rare for a toddler to remember something after experiencing it just once. The way toddlers learn is by doing the same thing over and over and over again. Because of this, you’re going to have to talk about the new baby on the way a lot. You can’t mention it from time to time and hope that the idea will “stick.” If you mention it sporadically, your toddler will feel like the news is brand new every time because, for him, it is. Talking about it every day helps the toddler understand and remember that a change is coming. It also helps build excitement.
Your toddler is going to ask you a million questions (many of them over and over again) about his new brother or sister. It’s okay to tell your first born that you don’t know the answer to something but if you do know the answer, be honest about it. It is okay to tell your first born that there will be times when he will have to play by himself because you will be busy with the baby or that sometimes the baby will keep everybody awake because that’s what babies do. If you paint a picture of everybody loving everybody perfectly all the time, you’re setting your toddler up to be disappointed and to feel bad when his emotions don’t match the fantasy you’ve created.
Shower Extra Love Whenever Possible
Sometimes this is going to mean special toys just for your first born. Other times it is going to mean an outing, just for the two of you to spend some special time together. Other times it is going to mean asking your first child to help you with your second. Remember: toddlers are learning to be independent people and to do things themselves. Asking your first born for help with the baby shows that you trust him and that you value his independence as much as his dependence on you. It can also help your first born child bond with the baby, which is incredibly important for keeping intact your family’s strong relationship.
There are certainly going to be mishaps and missteps along the way, and at times you may be lost about how to handle the situation. When in doubt, let your child be your guide for how much you should push or relax in terms of his acceptance of his new sibling.