Expecting your second child? Then you're wondering how your first-born is going to handle—well, everything. We asked moms who've been there to create this real-life trouble-shooting guide. From breaking the news to stopping sneaky aggression, here's how to prep your big kid for a younger sibling.
happy pregnant mom playing with daughter in field
Credit: Shutterstock

Break the news the right way.

"We kept it simple. We just said 'Good news! Mommy is going to have a baby right around here,' turning to May on the calendar. He was underwhelmed." -Ruth Bein, Hicksville, NY

The test is positive. Once you get your own emotions (mostly) under control, your thoughts likely turn to your first baby. When do you tell her? When it feels right to you, but before it's physically obvious, says Alan Kazdin, Ph.D., professor of psychology at Yale University and director of the Yale Parenting Center. What do you say, exactly? "Something straightforward but brief, like 'You're going to have a baby sister or brother, and it's going to happen around Christmastime. We're really happy about that,'" suggests Dr. Kazdin. Preschoolers can't process long explanations. "Don't be surprised if he replies 'OK,' then asks for a cookie or notes that his shoe hurts," says Dr. Kazdin.

Make some "just us" memories.

"Julia named her bear 'baby boy bear' in anticipation of her baby brother. Six years later, she still cherishes the pictures of the trip and the bear." -Sarah Knill, Mechanicsville, MD, who took her daughter to Build-A-Bear Workshop as a pre-sibling outing.

Many moms expecting their second feel melancholy that it won't be "just us" anymore. Make the most of your first-born's final weeks as a singleton by doing something special together. A few ideas:

  • Make over her room: Picking out new paint and maybe a lamp, curtains, bedding, or throw rug makes the transition to big kid official.
  • Pose for a portrait: A professional family portrait will commemorate your days as a trio. You can also take a "mommy-and-me" shot.
  • Take a weekend trip: Indoor water park resorts, like Great Wolf Lodge or Kalahari Resorts, are a sure little-kid pleaser. Or consider heading to New York City to visit the largest Build-a-Bear Workshop in the world, or the St. Louis Zoo outpost where you can make stuffed exotic animals, too.

Prep for D-Day together.

"We went for pizza before finding out the sex of the baby and took bets. Then we all went to the ultrasound together." -Michelle Hobbs, Salt Lake City, UT

"Cady helped pick out nursery items for her brother. We read children's books about what was happening with me physically and how things would change when the baby came home. By the time he was born she was pretty excited about having a new baby brother. -Jennifer Williams, Beaumont, TX

Getting your first-born ready for the big day should be happening throughout your pregnancy, explains Dr. Kazdin. "The more you involve him, the more he will feel like part of the team."

As the day approaches, make him your assistant in packing your hospital bag. As you pack, offer a choice in arrangements, like "Do you want Grandma to come over when it's time for me to go to the hospital, or Aunt Jen?"

Take a "practice drive" to the hospital, and invite your child to come along. Seeing where you'll be going can help ease fear of the unknown. Also, check with your hospital: some allow siblings to join in a maternity ward tour.

And when questions about the birth itself start coming? As with any question a young child asks, Dr. Kazdin advises answering what they asked, but only what they asked, as briefly and directly as possible. If asked, for example, whether it's going to hurt, offer: "Yes, it will hurt, but I'll be OK." Give just enough detail so that it's a cohesive explanation, agrees Rahil Briggs, Psy.D., director of Pediatric Behavioral Health Services at Montefiore Medical Center in New York City.

After the birth: Start siblings off on the right foot.

"I wrapped up a Buzz Light Year toy and packed it in my hospital bag. When Chase came to see the baby, he got to open his gift to thank him for being a big brother. He beamed. That started things off on a positive note." -Kathy Dennen, Rehoboth, MA

"We bought her a big sister shirt. It may sound like a little thing, but she was so excited to wear that shirt to the hospital to meet her new sister. After that, I could barely get it off her to wash it." -Michelle Slursarz, Coudersport, PA

Happily, the moment your big kid first meets the baby is not make-or-break. "You're not doomed to a lifetime of sibling rivalry if the introduction isn't 'perfect,'" says Dr. Briggs. "Don't get bogged down in details that are hard to control anyway, like who should be holding the baby.'"

Here's what is important, she says:

  • Giving the big kid a big greeting. This was likely the only time your child has been away from you this long. That's what he's been thinking about more than anything else over the last few days. An immediate, big hug is the first order of business.
  • Sending off a positive vibe. Kids take their emotional cues from us. Don't apologize ("Oh, my poor baby! I'm so sorry I've been away!"). Likewise, if you're in the weepy throes of postpartum hormones, that's not the afternoon to bring the child to see the baby.
  • Establishing roles. If the new baby isn't your second, everyone will have an easier time of it, right? Yes, and...maybe not. True, they're used to sharing your attention, but the younger is also used to being the baby. The key is to make sure each child still has a special role in the family that only he can fulfill. "Assign an honorary title," suggests Dr. Briggs, "like Best Baby Outfit Chooser or Chief Bottle Warmer." He may not have the exact same identity, but he'll still have recognition.

Accept it when your big kid regresses a bit.

"He regressed with potty training when the baby arrived, and we just let that happen. We also let him keep his pacifier. He soon decided diapers and pacis were just for babies." -Katie Sluiter, Bay City, MI

"Try saying things like, 'Katrina is so tiny she has to sleep in the bassinet every single night' or 'Poor Katrina. Her legs aren't strong enough to run like yours. It must be so boring to have to be carried everywhere.'" -Keely Flynn, Chicago

Backsliding is common. What may be your first reaction—scolding ("Why are you having accidents? I don't need this!") or reasoning ("You'll be much more comfortable in your big boy bed.")—will only make this phase go on longer, says Dr. Kazdin. Any attention, even reprimands or attempts at logic, will reinforce the behavior, he explains. Here's what he suggests instead:

  • Praise the positive. You may consider a preemptive strike. Even if there's been no sign of regression, compliment him once in a while when he uses the bathroom. "I'm so proud of how you've gotten so good about using the potty all the time."
  • Ignore the negative. If he wants to wear Pull-ups, let him. When he needs to be changed, do it quickly and without saying a word.
  • Compromise. If your big kid asks to sleep on the floor in your room, say yes, but with limits: "You can sleep in our room one night a week." And offer a choice: "Pick Friday night or Saturday night."
  • Inflate differences. Trumpet the perks of being a big kid.

Counter jealousy with patience and praise.

"When Jack wouldn't stop acting jealous, it clicked that he needed more one-on-one attention. Between Mommy and Daddy, we made sure he got it. Things got easier from there." -Melissa Shotter, Seaford, NY

"I had Maxx pick out an outfit for the baby before she was born. On a particularly rough sibling day, I dressed her in it, then pointed out to Maxx that she was smiling because she liked her new clothes. He smiled back and felt so important!" -Marianne Szymanksi, Milwaukee, WI

A jealous big sib might handle baby roughly. In this case, modeling is the way to go, says Dr. Briggs. You can practice on dolls, an egg, or even an over-ripe peach or plum. It's much clearer to see what you mean by "softly" than to hear it.

When your baby's in a good mood, call your big kid over to practice. Stroke her hair; pet his leg. Make it a game of "Who can be more gentle?" Advance to putting on the baby's socks or hat. Effusive praise with big smiles ("Are you sure you haven't done this before?") ups the odds your child will want to continue touching baby the right way.

And if you suspect those extra-tight hugs are intentional? Even if you're 90 percent sure your child is fibbing when he stammers, "I don't know why she's crying!" the 10 percent makes accusation a slippery slope, cautions Dr. Briggs.

She recommends pondering aloud how it feels to have a baby in the house: "It can be really hard. It seems like lots of things have changed. The baby cries a lot, and is messy." You're sending the message to your child that you understand the situation, Dr. Briggs says.