As I looked at a familiar plus sign on a pregnancy test — standing in our bathroom covered in rubber duck toys and stackable bath cups — I felt tides of joy and sorrow. Our son had just celebrated his first birthday a few months before. As I went to tell my husband in the living room, I could also sense some pain in his smile as we both turned our eyes to our soon-to-be “firstborn.”
While getting pregnant again had seemed like an excellent plan just two weeks prior, now it felt like a betrayal to our child. For the next eight months, I worried about whether our son would feel any less loved once he was no longer the only child.
Dropping the news of a new family member is never easy. Your child faces a change in status, either as an only kid who becomes a sibling, or as a part of the hierarchy in the case of multiple children.
“Introducing a new child undermines the family structure as we know it,” said Tamar Ben Yishai, a certified parental educator specializing in early childhood development, who is based in Tel Aviv. A mother of three, she has helped hundreds of families work through sleep disruptions and behavioral regressions.
It’s normal to feel a bit on edge about putting your kids through changes. “I have yet to meet a parent who isn’t nervous about having another baby,” said Ben Yishai. But projecting angst onto your kids doesn’t help. Imagine if your partner was suddenly showering you with gifts, flowers, and professing endless love every five minutes. Nice, sure — but is something fishy going on?
Dramatically changing parental behavior sends a message to the first child that life as they know it is about to go badly off-track. As tempting as it is to smother them with hugs, experts recommend playing it cool and disguising your guilt.
“Children learn about the world through their parents’ behavior,” said Galit Nahum Leumi, a psychotherapist and family counselor based in Tel Aviv, and a mother of three. “Regardless of their age, when children feel tension or change, they interpret it to themselves: If my parents work harder to make me happy, perhaps something bad happened or is about to happen.”
While our gut may be telling us otherwise, it is important to reprogram ourselves away from the feeling that we are robbing the older child. Do not worry, for example, about taking sibling preparation classes. Instead, be matter-of-fact about a sibling arrival, and emphasize that it can be a great gift. Rather than making it into a big, serious sit-down-talk moment (the “we are getting a divorce” vibe), try to introduce the subject naturally.
It is key that the information come from you. How soon depends on the age of your child. This can be elusive: not too early, because time moves slowly for small kids. But not too late; don’t wait until your neighbors beat you to it and stun your child with, “When is the next baby due?”
“In cases of children under the age of 2, my experience is that parents can even wait until week 30 of the pregnancy. When you do approach the subject, be sensitive and accepting of their reaction,” Ben Yishai said.
With older children, you can be more flexible. “Older siblings can likely be given the news sooner than a younger child. If a mother is not ‘showing’ yet, it may be more difficult for a younger child to understand, whereas an older child may understand, ask questions and have additional time to prepare themselves for a new member of the family,” said Nia Heard-Garris, M.D., a pediatrician and instructor at the Ann & Robert H. Lurie Children’s Hospital of Chicago and Northwestern University, who examines adversities during childhood and adolescence.
When the baby arrives, don’t allow the sibling to visit before you’re ready. The first family photo op doesn’t have to be immediate; if possible, take some time to recover. When my second son was born, I missed my older boy and was eager to be home, only to find out that I was not prepared. I alternated between staying behind closed bedroom doors with the newborn, needing more time to recuperate from my C-section, and keeping the sleeping baby in the bedroom to interact with my toddler, pretending through pain like nothing had ever happened.
“Sometimes, because parents want to avoid the issue of jealousy, they don’t give much attention to the baby,” Nahum Leumi said. “Instead, parents should allow themselves to start showing love to both children as the new normal.” Hiding the sleeping newborn in the other room, as tempting as it is, is sending the wrong message.
“Plan to act as a cohesive family. Breastfeed in the living room, for example, while your child is playing next to you. Have family meals while the baby is in their cradle nearby,” advised Ben Yishai. Try to send the message that you are there for both of them.
Some parents prepare a gift from the newborn for the older children, a practice that experts are split on. Some say it will encourage affection toward the new intruder, while others believe too many favors put unnecessary pressure on the acceptance of the new sibling. It might not be wise to introduce a baby with magical spending powers into the house. Consider your older kids’ personalities: If you think it will make them happy, it could be a special moment. If you think they might hit up the baby with more toy demands, hold off.
Many older children also enjoy baby-related chores such as changing a diaper or putting clothes in the washing machine. Or you can let them entertain their tiny sibling in the bath. “These types of day-to-day activities empower them to feel like big kids,” Ben Yishai said.
Avoid terrifying statements such as “‘You are big now, and need to be responsible.” “Often there is the expectation that a 3-year-old will suddenly be composed, patient, and start dressing and eating on their own,” said Nahum Leumi.
There is no perfect answer for how to space your births, although there are many opinions and lists out there. Most of us have children at different times than we would have preferred. Michel Cohen, M.D., founder of the New York–based Tribeca Pediatrics and father of five, encourages parents not to worry about it. “There is no good time or bad time,” he wrote in a 2009 book, “The New Basics.” “Kids whose siblings follow close behind are just as happy as those with ‘space.’”
I will admit that we had a rough transition to a larger family at first, and witnessed sibling rivalry of biblical proportions. Things did eventually fall into place, and the boys became a solid team when the younger one was about two. They are both older now, and we recently had a third child. Now, of course, I’m wondering, How long will the first two be angry with me for having one more?
Zuzana Boehmová is a writer and gender consultant who publishes in Czech and English.