While most children will tell you that they like the idea of having a younger brother or sister, few of them actually enjoy stepping out of the family spotlight and sharing their parents' attention with this new stranger. There are ways of minimizing the stress to both the older child and you, and to turn at least some of the remaining stress into a positive experience.
Should Your Child Be There?
Toddlers and preschoolers will share their true feelings about the expected baby more clearly through their behaviors than through their words. That's why you can often help them come to terms with those feelings better through play rather than talk.
Encourage your child to practice caring for his favorite toyit doesn't matter whether it's a doll, a stuffed animal, or even a truckas if it were a baby. Help him understand that feeding time is also a time for loving interaction. Practice diapering a doll together. Find out whether your local hospital has special Big Brother/Big Sister classes for young siblings-to-be.
Don't be surprised or upset if your child expresses anger at or rejection toward the expected or new baby. ("If she cries, we'll just throw her away!") Also, your older child may start acting more baby-like: He may become clingy or temporarily stop being toilet-trained. Remember that when he says or does these things, he's really testing whether you're going to reject or abandon him in favor of the new baby. Give him lots of hugs, and tell him how special he is to you.
Have a special doll or a stuffed animal for your older child to take home with the new baby. This gives your child someone to pretend to nurturefeed, diaper, bathe, rock, and sing towhile you're doing those things to the new baby. Use that new toy to show your child how to hold the new baby safely, with her head supported.
Should Your Child Be There?
Remember that the big fear that young children have during your pregnancy is that they'll be abandoned and replaced. Let your child know who's going to stay with her and care for her while you give birth. Talk about what the two of you will do together when you come back.
If you want her to be present during your labor and delivery, keep in mind that it can be very frightening and confusing for her. She doesn't have the perspective to know what's going on. It also can be an added stress for you and for your spouse. If you do let her be there, make sure that there's a responsible adult present who can devote full attention to your child, and who can help her leave the room and do something else if she becomes frightened or overwhelmed.
Children will rightfully feel envious of all the attention that's lavished on the new baby. When I visit the parents of a newborn, I always bring a special gift (with the parents' permission, of course) for the older child. This lets the child know that she's not forgotten.
Keep in mind that most toddlers and preschoolers are disappointed by how little fun a newborn baby is. For months they had visualized a playmate, and will need time to reorient themselves and lower their expectations.
Expect sibling rivalry. In the long run, it can turn into a healthy competitiveness. In the beginning, you'll probably have to help your older child express her conflicted feelings in words or through drawings, and let her know in no uncertain terms that you still love her and will take care of her.
Ideally, each parent should schedule at least one or two times during the day when they can spend time alone with the older sibling. The length of time is less important than giving your child your undivided attention. This not only addresses her fears of abandonment and replacement, but makes it easier for her to tolerate those times during the day when you have to focus exclusively on the new baby.
Children take great comfort in the predictability of family rituals, whether it's mealtime, bathtime, or reading a bedtime story together. Keeping up these rituals is especially important after a new baby arrives. The more things you can keep the same in the older child's life, the less stress she'll feel.