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Becoming the Big Brother or Sister

toddler touching mother pregnant belly

iStock/Jupiter Images

One momentous change that often occurs in the life of a 2-year-old is the arrival of a new baby brother or sister. If your toddler is the family's firstborn, the event can be especially traumatic. But parents can help make the occasion less threatening for a toddler, starting well before the birth:

  • Tell your child about the pregnancy as soon as you feel it's appropriate Some experts advocate waiting until at least a few months into the pregnancy, since kids this age, with their immature sense of time, have such difficulty waiting. But others believe that perceptive toddlers pick up on adult cues and sense that something's up anyway-which can make them fearful or anxious.
  • Help your toddler understand what's happening by showing her pictures of fetal development so she can envision the baby changing and growing inside Mommy's uterus. Allow her to feel the baby's kicks and squirms, and try to expose her to other infants as much as possible. Enlist your child's help in selecting a layette and baby toys for her new sibling. It's also a good idea to refer to the baby as "our baby" rather than "my baby."
  • Don't make major changes in your child's routine in the months surrounding the birth. Such transitions as potty training, weaning from the bottle, and starting preschool should be postponed, if possible, until several months after the baby's birth (if not accomplished at least a month or two before your due date).

Also, don't let the new baby displace your toddler from his crib right away. Borrow a crib from friends if you'll need a second one for only a few months, or keep the new baby in a bassinet or a cradle -- and preferably not in your toddler's room.

  • Relive your toddler's infancy. Look at his baby pictures together and talk about what he was like as an infant and how happy you were when he was born. Emphasize how grown-up he has become since then and how proud you are of his accomplishments, such as talking, using the toilet, and feeding himself.

Fill your child in on the arrangements you've made for when you go the hospital, shortly before your due date. Tell him who will care for him and that you'll be home in a few days. If possible, have your toddler come to meet the new baby at the hospital.

Most parents find that there's an initial "honeymoon" period when a younger sibling comes home from the hospital. A toddler may initially shower the new baby with hugs and kisses, giving rise to a rosy parental vision of the two as lifelong pals. This state of bliss usually passes, however. Signs of jealousy, such as aggression toward the baby -- or the parent! -- may surface, and some toddlers have a tendency to regress temporarily to more babyish behaviors.

You can help minimize the negative feelings that are bound to arise by focusing as much attention as possible on your older child. Hire a babysitter so that you and your toddler can participate in a weekly activity together, and make room in your schedule for her to do something special, one-on-one, with Dad.

Make your child feel like more of a participant by having her help, in small ways, with the baby's care and feeding. For example, she can bring you a clean diaper, help pat the baby's back at burping time, and stand by during the bath to hand you the soap and towel.

Don't scold your child for expressing negative feelings about his new sibling. Reassure him that you know it can be hard to have a new baby in the house, and perhaps recount a time in your own childhood when a new brother or sister came along.

If your toddler truly tries to hurt the baby, deal with the behavior quickly and firmly. Be alert. Sometimes such aggression will be slyly subtle, such as the toddler's "holding" his baby sister's hand in a pythonlike grip.

Even if you don't sense much animosity toward the new sibling, a word of caution is in order: Never leave the baby unattended with your 2-year-old. Overt aggression isn't the only fearsome possibility. The toddler still views the world as a giant laboratory ripe for experimentation, and a "test" on a baby sister ("I wonder what would happen if I pinched her...") can have serious consequences.