Whenever one of my friends finds out they're expecting a second, third, or even fourth child, they always ask the same question: how do I help my kids get ready for the new baby? Welcoming a new baby is a big change, and no matter how many children someone has, it’s totally normal to wonder how their other kids will adjust to adding a new family member. You can do a lot to prepare your kids to be big siblings, but there are some struggles you can only address once you’re in the middle of the big transition. To give you a head start, we asked some real parents to share what was hardest for their kids about becoming a big brother or sister and how they helped them get through it.
1. “Mommy is too busy to play with me.”
One of the first things kids notice when they have a new sibling is that suddenly mom and dad are “busy.” They have a new person to worry about, and kids worry that their parents might even be “too busy” to play or to spend time together. Erinne Magee, a mom of two from Portland, Maine, said her daughter was an only child for seven years before a little brother came along. And once he did, her daughter struggled with having to share her mom’s attention. To combat this, Magee became more intentional about spending solo time with her oldest child. “It made me be present as a mom, knowing she still needed 1-on-1 time,” she explained. “So we had our uninterrupted reading time at the end of each day, where I also explained her brother wouldn’t always be so little and require so much attention. But, for now, that’s how he learns and grows.”
You can spend time preparing for this change before the baby comes too, especially by reading books like Caroline Jayne Church’s I Am a Big Sister and I Am a Big Brother. Reading is a great excuse to cuddle, and these books give kids the words they need to express their feelings about their new role.
2. “You love the baby more than me.”
With a change in the amount of time you get to spend together also comes the fear that your love for your oldest has diminished. My own children are 4 and 7, and even now my oldest sometimes accuses me of “loving” her brother more, simply because I’ll do something like help him clean up his bedroom because he’s younger and less able to do it on his own. I know these actions aren’t rooted in loving either of my children more than the other, but they don’t always see it that way.
That’s why, since my son was a newborn, I’ve been open with my oldest about the work it takes to care for a baby or young child and why he sometimes gets extra care. Humor is a tool I rely on often, either through telling her about her own baby-hood — like how I had to rock her to sleep for hours because she hated to be swaddled or all of the afternoons spent cleaning up “poop explosions” once she learned how to undo the tabs on her own diaper — or through funny books, like Kate Beaton’s King Baby that offers a hilariously real and relatable portrait of the demands of a newborn.
3. “You never let me help with the baby!”
For a little kid, having a new baby in the house can feel like everyone just got a brand new toy that they’re really excited about, but not a single person will let them play with it. They can’t hold the baby or help with changing and feeding, and they get told to “be gentle” every time they just want to share their favorite remote control car. They don’t realize babies are fragile; they just want to participate!
One way to help is by buying them a doll, like in Elizabeti’s Doll by Stephanie Stuve-Bodeen. The mom in the story gifts her daughter a brand new baby doll so she can take care of her doll in the same ways her mom takes care of the new baby. You can also create special responsibilities for your older child so they can participate in the actual childcare going on at home. “For us, it’s always been about making sure the older kids are actively involved with the baby, whether it’s being a helper or having a straight up responsibility” says Rebekka Heeres, a mom of three from New Jersey. “...Both big [siblings] have always helped picking out outfits and throwing away dirty diapers. My oldest gave my youngest his first bottle.”
4. “But I’m the baby!”
The move to big brother or big sister is a promotion, but not every kid realizes that at first. Instead, it can feel like someone is taking over their spot in the family, and they might feel jealous or anxious. For Shauna Armitage, a mom from Colorado Springs, Colorado, this resulted in her kids “playing baby” to get her attention. “We saw this clearly when my girls wanted to try on the infant clothes, climb into the baby seat, or stick a binky in their mouths, even though they never touched a binky when they were infants!” she says.
Armitage played along, letting them experiment with being a baby until they realized they really didn’t want to be one. “It minimized jealousy and eventually they got bored and went back to being ‘big’ again,” she says. Like the big brother in The New Small Person by Lauren Child, sometimes kids have to push a few boundaries before they come to accept, and even relish, their new role in the family.
5. “Babies are so boring!”
When I was pregnant with my youngest, I spent a lot of time talking up how fun it would be to have a new brother. Then the baby arrived, and my daughter was presented with a sleepy little bundle who couldn’t walk or talk and only moved when he wanted food or a diaper change. “Wait a second,” she must have thought. “My mom is a total liar!”
If I could compare her to any character, it’d probably be the little dog Biscuit from Biscuit and the Baby, which we read together all the time back then because that was one of her favorite series (What can I say? I do a great Biscuit bark!). Like an anxious little puppy, she just couldn’t wait to play with her brother, and it was so hard for her to be patient and gentle. But now I’m happy to report that my children are absolutely best friends. They do everything together. My son even tries to sleep on his sister’s bedroom floor every night, instead of in his own bed. And that’s the important thing to keep in mind. As parents, our hearts expand to hold enough love for all of our children, and theirs can grow to love their siblings too, just as much as we do.