By Astrid Van Dan Broek
When it came time to tell our daughter Annika about the new little brother or sister joining the family, my husband and I worked the public relations machine. You’ll always have someone to play with, we told her excitedly. You’ll always have someone to sit with in the car, we assured her.
Looking back, I realize that maybe in trying to hype up how great a new sibling would be to Annika, we didn’t talk to our then three-year-old enough about how she felt about becoming a big sister. “Some parents might oversell the idea of a new baby, leading children to look forward to it coming as if it may be a new doll or a new playmate right away,” says Dr. Carol Crill Russell, senior research associate with Toronto-based Invest in Kids, a Canadian national charity focusing on parenting in early years. “They could be really excited and happy about it at first, but it could lead to a crash of expectations.” Here’s how to get your child on board when a baby is…on board.
Nine months is a lot of time to discuss your pregnancy with your child. So when exactly do you let him in on the family secret? Alyson Bethley, a Guelph, Ont., mom of two, held off on new baby talk until she was about six months pregnant and starting to sport a round belly. But along with telling her son Aidan about what was going to happen to their family and offering a basic explanation about pregnancy, she made sure he knew he was still their pride and joy. “We were always reassuring him that there’s always enough love for all the kids in a family,” she says.
In Nanaimo, B.C., Lee Sanmiya, a mom of four, used visual aids to help show her children what to expect when she was expecting. “We hung out with other moms and babies at La Leche League meetings so that the older siblings had a realistic idea of what babies could and could not do at various stages,” she says.
When number two is on the way, it’s tempting to rush your eldest child through a development stage such as potty training to make life with two children that much easier. “It’s better to establish a big change such as starting childcare or switching rooms before the baby arrives,” says Dr. Crill Russell. At Stephanie B.’s house, they needed their eldest daughter Sophia to move to a different bedroom and big-girl bed in their Hamilton, Ont., home, but they made the move months before baby sister Abigail arrived. “We spent time together decorating Sophia’s room well before Abby arrived and never mentioned she was moving there because of the baby,” she says. “Then when she was settled, we told her how exciting it would be to get the baby’s room ready and we did that together too.”
To set the sibling relationship off on the right foot, you also might want to invest in a little labour-day gift for your eldest child. Allison Sandmaier, a mom of five in Red Deer, Alta., stocked up on white T-shirts and fabric paints for her daughter’s arrival two years ago. “They decorated their shirts to wear to the hospital that said, “I’m a new big sister/brother’ and they turned out great,” she says. In Guelph, Bethley snuck craft supplies and a Halloween costume into Aidan’s room the morning of her daughter Annabelle’s birth, and told him they were from his baby sister. “He still talks about the day Annabelle was born and the stuff he got!” she says of her now eight-year-old.
Dr. Crill Russell notes that parents should remember to cut their older children a bit of slack for even as long as six months after the baby’s born. “Oftentimes you expect your older child to become more independent once the baby arrives,” she says, but the opposite can be true. “Expect that there may be more crying, more big emotions and know that they may actually become more dependent, rather than independent.” You can help your preschooler cope with a few extra cuddles, a little alone time — even if it’s just playing a short game or reading a book while the new addition naps — and suggesting to him that he is big enough to help and fetch a diaper or sing his favourite lullaby to the baby. All these things will let him know he is a big part of his new, bigger family.
Toronto-based writer Astrid Van Den Broek is still waiting for her Labour Day gift after the birth of her little sister Heather 33 years ago.