Lots of parents choose to have children close together. After all, it's a great way to ensure that your kids will always have a playmate and confidante as they grow. In the beginning, however, it’s a big adjustment for your older child to handle all the changes that happen with a newborn. He'll likely go from excited at the responsibilities of big brotherhood, to frustrated that your undivided attention has now been split two ways. Here’s what behavior to expect from your older child, and how to keep them from feeling left out in the shuffle of life with a new baby. In the end, you want to make sure they know that even though they have a sibling now, they’ll always be your first love.
Start before baby. When you’re still pregnant, begin prepping big brother or sister. “It starts before the baby is born,” says family therapist Susan Mandel, founder of First Attachments Parenting Center. “Include them in picking things out, or getting the room together for the baby. Just don’t try to get the older child to grow up too fast. They’ll feel pushed out of the nest.” Ease him into his new role.
Tap into family for gifts. Plant this seed in the ears of your tight-knit circle: “Ask grandparents and close friends who you know are planning to bring a new baby gift to bring a gift for your older child, too,” says psychologist and parenting expert Susan Newman, author of Little Things Long Remembered: Making Your Children Feel Special Everyday. “It can be something small; anything will make your firstborn feel wanted and included. Depending on the age difference, it could be a similar stuffed animal, for instance.”
Split time with dad. After the baby is born, it’s time to team up and flip-flop parenting roles with dad. Spend some one-on-one time with your older child, minus her new sibling. “Have your partner take the baby for a walk or put him or her to bed so you can focus on the big brother or sister,” Newman says. “Play a game. Read a book together.”
Don’t change a thing. With all the changes of a new child, don’t ask your older child to alter anything else in his life until he has adjusted. “Keep morning and bedtime rituals for your older child as close to the same as possible,” Newman says.
Mandel agrees this is not the time to have your child start handing over their baby items, either. “Don’t force them to give up any soothing, transitional items when there’s a newborn,” she says. “During this time especially, they need blankies, binkies and bottles.”
Call on the babysitter. You don’t have to leave the house to call on some help; dial up the babysitter immediately. “Hire your son or daughter’s favorite babysitter or high school student for a few hours solely for the purpose of entertaining your older child,” Newman says. “That will allow you time to focus on your newborn and not stress out about ignoring your firstborn.”
Make him your helper. You know how capable your little one is! You’ve watched them grow. Now, let them play the role of Mom’s Biggest Helper. “Make your older child feel important by asking them to bring you a diaper or toy,” Newman says. “And be sure to let him know how much you love and appreciate it when he helps. You can’t oversell or overstress the importance of your older child’s assistance and feed his feelings of inclusion.”
Take setbacks in stride. A lot of mothers panic if they see their children take steps back in development, but a “no biggie” attitude will go a long way. Relax. “Take any regression—such as wanting a bottle, or sitting in your lap, or using a pacifier again—in stride,” Newman says. “Those reactions to the new baby usually disappear more quickly if you don’t make a big deal out of them.”
Always remember your child just wants your attention, and is looking for a response from you. How you respond is important. “Don’t shame him if he starts to act like a baby again,” Mandel says. “Kids are always developmentally striving to grow and become bigger. Even if he has a minor setback, he’ll spring back to where he was in no time.”
Break out the baby book. Your 2-year-old can’t recall what she was like as a newborn baby, but you remember how special that time was. Sit her down, and tell her all about it. “Bring out the older child’s baby book and photos from when they were an infant,” says Mandel. “Tell them, ‘I remember when you were that little!” and then show them.’” She'll love hearing about how adorable she was—and still is, of course.
Entertain—Together. Sometimes, you just need to occupy his time as you rock your infant back and forth, or change a diaper. So, give your child a task. Maybe soothing his little brother to sleep? “Ask your child to sing a song to the baby,” says Newman. “Or sing one together.”
Let him or her play daddy or mommy. Little girls, especially, want to be just like their moms. Let her mimic you. “Give them baby dolls,” says Mandel. “That way, when you’re changing the baby, she can change the doll. When you’re feeding the baby, she can feed the doll.” Show her how to be just like you, and she’ll feel like she can handle anything.
Show empathy. Your older child is aware of what’s happening around him; your newborn is not. Sympathize if he's visibly frustrated, and create that alliance with your older child. “If the baby’s crying, acknowledge it,” says Mandel. “Say, ‘Isn’t it frustrating when we can’t figure out why Jane won’t stop crying?’”
Newman agrees you should be as understanding as possible while your son or daughter tries to cope with the newness of a newborn. “Be empathetic when your older child demands your time,” she says. “Say something like, ‘I know you want to be with me. We will do something in a little bit, as soon as I put the baby down.’”
Give him responsibilities. Place your older child's abilities on a pedestal, and remind him that he'll be able to show his little brother or sister how bright, talented and special he is. And maybe most importantly, you need him to look out for his younger sibling: “Remind your child that they are the teacher," Newman says. "They're the one you are counting on to teach their new brother or sister how to color and count, for instance.” Put him in the role early, because you want your children to look out for each other as they grow.
Stress her skills. Older sis is miles ahead of your newborn in cognitive and physical skills, and it’s OK to show her all she can do. “Point out or remind your older son or daughter of all the things she can do that the baby can’t—brush her teeth, eat ice cream, help mommy, for example.” It’s awesome being older, right?
…But remember her needs. Even though she's the older sibling, she's still not old enough. Don’t force your oldest to grow up too quickly. Those years are going to fly by fast. “The most important thing to keep in mind is that the older child, toddler-aged, still has baby needs,” Mandel says. “It’s important not to force your child to give those up too soon. If a child is pushed there too soon, dependency issues can linger. Moms generally place huge value on ‘you’re grown up now’ and ‘you’re a big boy or a big girl.’ Try to avoid that.”
Forget the chores. Sometimes, you can feel overwhelmed trying to get everything done before while the baby’s still sleeping—but it’s OK to leave the duster alone for a day if it means you can make pancakes with your oldest child. “Remember, spending time with your older child and making them feel secure and sure of their place in your heart is more important than putting in a load of laundry,” says Newman. So, put away the vacuum. Leave the dishes.
Shower with love. This last one’s simple: “Go the distance with extra hugs and kisses,” Newman says. “Pile them on your firstborn.” Children can never have enough love.