Dear Dr. Johnson: We are expecting a baby. How do we prepare our 3-year-old for the addition to the family?
Dear Reader: First of all, congratulations. How to best prepare an older sibling can vary greatly based on the child’s age and personality. If your child is old enough to understand, you can talk about how the baby is in your belly and will be coming home soon.
Picture books about babies can be helpful. Share your excitement about the new baby. If your child is old enough, you can also talk about how the baby will cry at times and need extra attention.
If your child is interested, you can buy a doll and begin showing him or her how to care of the baby. Try to make any changes to beds, bedrooms, potty-training or routines in advance of the baby’s arrival so the sibling doesn’t feel the baby is taking something from them or become overwhelmed by too many changes.
When the baby arrives, allow the older child to be involved as much as possible, if they are interested. Some young children are ambivalent to the new baby and this is OK. Other children are very interested in the new baby.
Try to make the interactions positive. Instead of saying, “Don’t touch the baby’s face,” you can say, “The baby likes it when you touch her feet.” Allow your older child to feel helpful by getting you diapers, helping to fasten the diapers, replacing a spit-out pacifier, etc.
Expect some regression of behaviors and behavioral outbursts. This is very normal when there is such a big change. Be consistent with discipline but understanding of the changes in behavior.
Try to keep your older child to their typical routine. Make sure he or she has opportunities to burn off some energy during the day.
Set aside time each day for your older child. This doesn’t have to be a long period, but use it to read, play games or just talk. You also can have time to connect by allowing the older child to sit with you while you feed the baby.
Ask for help. Having a new baby in itself can be overwhelming but two children can be even more so. Ask family and friends to play with your older child when they come to visit. This helps the older child to feel special and shows them that the baby is not getting all the attention.
I do not recommend leaving a toddler alone with the baby in a room. The toddler may attempt to do something they think is helpful like picking up a crying baby and end up harming the baby. As any parent of a toddler knows, they can be unpredictable and don’t always follow parental direction.
You are approaching an exciting new event in your family’s life. Congratulations!