“You’re going to be a big brother!” I told my son (nicknamed Sprout) when he was almost three years old. “That means I’m going to have a baby.” He shrugged and went on his merry way.
Telling him was the easy part. Getting him ready was the challenge. I’m an only child, so the personal aspect of having a sibling was pretty foreign. Chris has a younger sister, but he doesn’t even remember her being born.
To prepare, we looked into advice on the internet, took suggestions from other families, and thought about what we would want if we were a little kid facing this big change.
Thankfully, following these ideas really did help. Almost two years on, our kids have a great relationship. While they shove and complain, they also show incredible generosity to each other. One of my favorite things to watch is when
Here’s some of the best advice we gathered, along with how we applied it:
Set appropriate expectations
Some kids think that they’ll have a quick playmate as soon as the baby’s born. They’re then mightily disappointed when they’re at a drastically different developmental level. To prevent this, we talked 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 more exciting and relevant to Sprout, we highlighted what he could do, like talk to the baby, sing to him, and help feed him.
Undoubtably, a highlight of these conversations was explaining breastfeeding to him. I stopped nursing Sprout after about a year, so he has zero memory of it. I explained that while he drinks milk from cows, the baby will get milk from my breasts when I’m there and drink from a bottle when I’m not. Hearing this, Sprout declared, “Babies eat boobs!” As I tried to stifle my laughter, 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 and the cows was both sharp and vaguely horrifying. Moo.
Reading books and watching shows relevant to the new sibling experience
In terms of TV, Daniel Tiger delivers the goods with a three-episode series about him getting a baby sister. While it made me 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. Sprout can be a narcissist, which helps. Looking at photos and videos of him as a baby provided a great opening to talk about how little and helpless babies are.
Having him practice with a baby doll
While Sprout wasn’t interested when we first got him a baby doll, we pulled it out again when we got serious about Campaign Big Brother. Using some handy accessories, we showed him how to hold a baby, feed a baby, and even bathe a baby. In particular, he was very keen on using the baby bottle. (Later on, he “filled” the baby bottle by holding it up to his chest. Oh, the joys of having your toddler see you pumping.)
Not all of his interactions with the doll were as brotherly though. He frequently held it by its head or swung it around by its arm. 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 was the opportunity to introduce Sprout to an actual baby.
In particular, we’re friends with one couple who had a baby only a few months before our younger son arrived. Sprout was intensely interested in him and studied him as if he was a new species. These interactions were excellent reference points for later conversations about babies.
Unfortunately, his expectations were still a bit too high. At my birthday party, our friend put the baby down for tummy time. Sprout squatted down, tilted his head into the baby’s field of vision and said, “He’s crawling!” When we explained that he was too little to crawl, he didn’t give up. Instead, he heartily exclaimed, “Crawl, baby!”
Asking his opinions on decisions about the baby
While many of the baby’s things are hand-me-downs, we did buy him his own furniture and some new clothing. Although it would have been easier for one of us to go shopping alone, we brought Sprout along to look at bedding and test rockers. He must have felt some level of responsibility because one day, he looked at his rocker and told my husband, “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 we 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. Then he changed his mind as I was warming up to it. Toddlers.
Despite his flip-flopping, we went Chris’s favorite one. 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 talked to my belly almost every day. It was never much, just a “Hello, baby brother,” but it was terribly cute. It was especially adorable that he would say it in a little tiny voice, even though he’s usually a loud talker. Somehow, he internalized that you need to be quiet around babies.
We also brought him to all of the doctor’s appointments, where he heard the baby’s heartbeat and saw him on the sonogram screen.
Providing him with emotional support
Throughout the third trimester of my pregnancy, Sprout was both needier and more boundary-pushing than ever before. While this manifested most clearly during bedtime, it creeped into the rest of the day as well.
I suspect that while we had been talking about this change for a long time, he finally realized it was approaching soon. Because he couldn’t articulate his concerns, his anxiety came out in his behavior. Unfortunately, it most often emerged with yelling, ignoring me, and using affection to delay getting things done. “I want a hug,” was his favorite phrase. Even though it was annoying at times, we stood by him through his frustrations, offering empathy and open arms.
While the introduction of a new sibling is inevitably a challenging transition, these steps softened the change a little, making it more peaceful and joyful for everyone.
For more on the big brother / little brother transition, check out The Biggest Challenge of Moving from One Kid to Two. Be sure to follow us on Facebook!