Becoming an older sibling is a huge transition, especially for a toddler who can’t fully grasp what that means. With Sprout gaining a baby brother in less than a month and a half (!), we’ve been working to get him ready for this major event. Unfortunately, it’s hard for us to take his viewpoint on this – I’m an only child and Chris doesn’t remember his sister being born.
So here’s some of the best advice we’ve gathered from articles and our own ideas, along with how we’re applying it:
Setting appropriate expectations: Some kids think that they’ll have a quick playmate as soon as the baby’s born and then are mightily disappointed when they are at such a different developmental level. To prevent this, we’ve been talking a lot about how babies can’t do much when they are born except eat, sleep and poop. Quite honestly, they’re a bit boring. To make things a little more exciting and relevant to Sprout, we highlight what he’ll be able to do, like talk to the baby, sing to the baby, and help feed the baby.
Undoubtably, a highlight of these conversations has been explaining breastfeeding to him. I stopped nursing him after about a year, so he has zero memory of it. I explained that while Sprout drinks milk from cows, the baby will get milk from my breasts when I’m there. He’ll drink my milk from a bottle when I’m not. Hearing this, he declared, “Babies eat boobs!” As I tried to stifle my laughter and clarify the difference between eating and drinking, he followed up with, “Get a bucket for milk in the bottle.” I don’t know how he knows farmers use buckets for milking cows (we’ve been to farms, but never seen that), but the connection between me being milked for the baby and cows was both sharp and vaguely horrifying. Moo.
Reading books and watching shows relevant to the new sibling experience: Not surprisingly, telling stories is a major part of our approach. We particularly like Peter’s Chair (featuring the same character as The Snowy Day) and Maple. I also keep wanting to check out Lola Reads to Leo, as the book Lola Loves Stories has a great little heroine, but we haven’t gotten around to finding it in the library. In terms of TV, Daniel Tiger delivers the goods with a three-episode series about him getting a baby sister. While it made me intensely jealous of tigers’ rapid gestation period, it’s a great introduction to the whole process, from pregnancy to having a baby in the house. In fact, Daniel’s parents actually use a lot of the tactics here to get him ready!
Looking at photos and videos of Sprout when he was a newborn: Because toddlers love looking at themselves, this is one case in which a photo or video is worth a whole lot of words. Besides the fact that Sprout can be a narcissist, looking at photos and videos of him as a baby provides a great opening to talk about how little and helpless babies are.
Having him practice with a baby doll: We bought Sprout a baby doll a while back, but he didn’t show much inherent interest in it. But when we got serious about Campaign Big Brother, we pulled it out again. We use it along with some accessories we just bought to demonstrate a number of useful skills, like how to hold a baby, help feed the baby, and even bathe the baby. In particular, he’s been very keen on pretending to use the baby bottle, so that’s encouraging. Not all of his interactions with the doll are quite as brotherly though – he frequently holds it by its head or swings it around by its arm. But I suppose that’s why you don’t leave the toddler alone with the baby.
Seeing and interacting with other people’s babies: Nothing is quite as useful as real-world experience. While this isn’t available to most people, the best tool so far has been the opportunity to introduce Sprout to actual babies.
In particular, we’re friends with one couple who had a baby in December that we’ve seen several times since then. Sprout has been intensely interested in him, studying him as if he’s a new species. Occasionally, he touches him gently. These interactions are excellent reference points for later conversations about babies.
Unfortunately, his expectations are still a bit too high. At my birthday party this weekend, our friend put the baby down for tummy time. Sprout squatted down, tilted his head into the baby’s point of view and said, “He’s crawling!” When we explained that he was too little to crawl, he didn’t give up, heartily exclaiming, “Crawl, baby!” While I admire his support, we explained that the baby wasn’t going to learn how to crawl immediately just from encouragement alone.
Asking his opinions on decisions about the baby: Many, but not all, of the baby’s things will be hand-me-downs from Sprout. But we are getting the baby his own furniture and some new clothing. While it would have undoubtedly been easier for one of us to go shopping alone, we brought Sprout to Buy Buy Baby with us to look at bedding and test rockers. He must feel some level of responsibility because one day, he looked over at his rocker and told Chris, “Baby brother needs a book chair.”
We even took his opinion into account when it came to the name. For obvious reasons, we ignored his suggestion – Face – but did ask him as a tie-breaker between the name I liked the most and the one Chris did. Of course, he consistently picked Chris’s and then changed his mind as I was warming up to it. Toddlers. Despite his flip-flopping, we went with that one anyway and he seems quite keen on it now. I think sincerely asking his opinion helps him feel more invested in preparing for the baby instead of overlooked.
Having him talk to, “see” and “hear” the baby: Sprout talks to my belly almost every day. It’s usually not much, just a “Hello, baby brother,” but it’s terribly cute. The funniest thing is that he says it in a little tiny voice, even though he’s usually a loud talker. Somehow, he’s internalized that you need to be quiet around babies. We’ve also brought him to all of the doctor’s appointments, where he’s heard the baby’s heartbeat and seen him on the sonogram screen.
Providing him with emotional support: Since Christmas, Sprout has been both needier and more boundary-pushing than ever before. While this manifests most clearly during bedtime, it’s creeped into the rest of the day as well. I suspect that while we’ve been talking about this change for a long time, he now knows it’s approaching soon. Because he can’t articulate his concerns, his anxiety about it comes out in his behavior. Unfortunately, it most often emerges with yelling, ignoring me and using affection to delay getting things done. “I want a hug,” is his favorite phrase. While I’ll never deny him a hug, it’s annoying when it’s the fourth one when we should be washing hands before dinner. Nonetheless, we’ve stood by him through his frustrations, offering empathy and open arms.
Spring is almost here and so will be Sprout’s little brother. While it’s inevitably a challenging transition, I hope these steps will soften the change a little, making it more peaceful and joyful for everyone.