The pending arrival of a second child means life is about to change in a major way. Dr. Nanika Coor offers tips for helping you and your eldest child adjust to this new reality.
Transitioning from being a parent of one tiny human to being a parent of two can feel overwhelming. There are so many questions about how you’ll make it work just from a logistical standpoint, let alone managing the emotional aspects of the situation. Will your first child feel excluded? Will your affection feel divided? Will your relationship with your partner be negatively affected? Will there be time to take care of yourself in any way? Expecting a second child can be a time of great excitement and anticipation for the adults involved—but how can you prepare a toddler or young child for the arrival of an infant? How do you help them deal with the drastic change of suddenly having to share you with another child?
The temporary—but intense—emotional upheaval that comes with bringing a second child into the family is one of the most common reasons parents reach out for my help. Managing this phase of family development will have its ups and downs, but it doesn’t have to be a source of distress.
Here are some tips for surviving this often turbulent transition with most of your sanity intact:
Preparing for your second child
Reflect on your own feelings and needs
Expecting a second child can be a very happy time for a parent. It can also be a time of chaos for the whole family. There are so many changes on the horizon. The knowledge that the dynamics with your first child will soon shift in permanent ways might spark worries about your older child’s well-being after the baby arrives. Make sure to process these worries with a trusted friend, family, or therapist—even journaling about it can be helpful. It’s normal to have some worries, but it’s also important not to let worry about the future negatively impact your current relationship with your older child or your newborn.
Proactively arrange for protected, non-childcare personal time
So often, once things get busy, you’ll end up doing more thinking about making time for self-care than actually making that time. Think of your future self and do this before you have two kids instead of one! Talk to the people in your community like family members, friends, or a partner about how they can help you make this happen. With a partner, talk about how you might rework your current divisions of home- and child-related tasks to account for two kids. Write these things down—don’t just speak of them in the abstract. Will one of you take the kids to the playground while the other sleeps in? Great—put it on a shared calendar so everyone knows what to expect of the other.
Will a trusted friend or family member hang with the kids for a few hours once a month so that you can have some alone time or a date night? Wonderful—get it on that calendar.
Understand your firstborn’s experience of this time
Even before their new sibling is living at home with them, their adults may already be preoccupied with the upcoming changes. Gestational parents caring for a child while pregnant may also tire much more easily than your child is used to. With your attention divided and your energy flagging, your older child knows something is going on. You may notice that your older child becomes more demanding, resistant, or clingy than they would normally be.
Giving your older child the news
A gestational parent might wait until the pregnancy has begun to show before talking about a baby on the way, particularly if the child is younger than 5. This will make it a slightly easier concept for a younger child to grasp if they can see and feel the baby moving as it grows.
Reading books to your child about babies and families can help young children understand the concept of a new sibling or a new baby in their home. One book that I love for describing the phenomenon of pregnancy and birth in a way that even young children can begin to understand—and no matter how a child is coming to be with your family—is What Makes A Baby.
Be sure not to overwhelm your kiddo with information, though. If they seem to tune out, it means they’re done talking about it for now, so don’t press it.
If your firstborn is very young, they may not even understand the concept of a baby! Point out babies when you see them in your daily life, and talk about them in positive ways.
Don’t dwell on the challenges, but let them know what to generally expect, and present these issues in a neutral way.
Give your eldest the real truth about what to expect
Let your child know the good and exciting things they can expect to happen when the new baby joins the family and some of the challenging things. You can explain to your child how the baby is growing and how the gestational parent’s body might change as a result. Let your eldest know how your home might change in terms of a baby’s room or your eldest sharing a room with the baby. At the same time, let your older one know what won’t change—their routines, your love for them, the special time that you carve out just for them, and special things the family will continue to do together.
On the positive side, your eldest will have a new sibling to get to know, to watch grow and learn new things. When the baby is older they will more easily smile and laugh. And one day, depending on the age gap between them, your eldest will have a built-in playmate! Let them know that it will be wonderful to have someone to share life experiences with as they both grow up.
You should also prepare your older child for the fact that you will need to spend a lot of time taking care of the baby and that sometimes you won’t be able to help Older Sibling as fast or as often as they’ve been used to up until now. Be sure to explain that a baby is only able to communicate their upset through crying—and that there may be a lot of crying. Let your child know that the baby won’t do much at the beginning except eat, sleep, and cry! Don’t dwell on the challenges, but let them know what to generally expect, and present these issues in a neutral way.
Make any changes to your firstborn’s schedule or routines before their sibling arrives
If you’re planning on making any changes to your eldest’s sleeping, eating, or toileting habits, have these in place well ahead of your second child’s arrival at home. Things will be thrown off in those first weeks of having two kids, but pre-established patterns will return when everything settles down.
Prepare your eldest for time apart
If you will need to be away from your eldest during the birth of the new baby, as the due date nears let your child know who will stay with them and for how long. To help illustrate the passage of time, have your child help you make a paper chain representing the days you will be apart and have an adult help your child cut one chain per day so that they have an idea of when the family will be reunited.
Invite your eldest to help set up the baby’s space
Have your oldest help set up your home for the baby. Do this early enough for your firstborn to explore it all to their heart’s content. From the crib to the stroller to the pacifiers and books—let them go wild! They’ll get used to the baby gear and toys since they will have had a chance to play with them already. This will cut down on jealousy once the baby arrives, as these items will not be novel to your oldest.
Help your firstborn take an active role in nurturing their future sibling
Some families who have a regular practice of downsizing the toy collection before gift-giving times like holidays and birthdays have used these moments to build a connection between the first and second child. Invite your eldest to help sort their existing toys into two groups: a keep group, a give group, and a save group. Explain that the give pile will be given to other children who may need toys, and the save pile is a special group of toys to be saved for New Sibling. This helps your eldest look forward to the future when they can play with this toy with their sibling.
Nothing will go smoothly right from the start—expect a period of adjustment.
When your second child comes home
Introducing your firstborn to their new sibling
When your firstborn meets their infant sibling for the first time, if possible try to have the baby in a car seat, bassinet, or held by another adult, rather than in a parent’s arms. Invite your eldest to interact with or hold the baby, showing them how to be gentle. Show neutrality and acceptance if they don’t want to just yet.
Ask visitors to greet your eldest first
In those first 3 months, ask people who are coming to see the baby to greet and speak to your eldest first—before the baby. If visitors are meeting the baby for the very first time, they might even ask Older Sibling to introduce them to their new baby sibling.
Expect a bumpy ride
Nothing will go smoothly right from the start—expect a period of adjustment. It will take some time to find your new normal with two instead of one. Remind yourself that this turbulence will eventually settle. How well you fall into your new routine will also depend on the temperament of your new child and how well that temperament fits—or doesn’t—with the existing temperaments of everyone else! More challenging babies will mean a more challenging adjustment period for everyone, so be prepared to give all family members some grace during this time.
Expect regression & big feelings
When your eldest sees their infant sibling getting the kind of body-to-body hands-on care that they may be getting less of simply due to their advanced age, they may feel jealous. Suddenly your potty-trained 3.5 year old is begging for diapers, warm bottles of milk, and wants to be rocked and sung to. This is totally normal and will pass! Honor these requests for caregiving without judgment or comment. This is part of your eldest coming to grips with their new reality. And when you can, point out the ways that being older allows for enjoyments in life that the baby has yet to experience. “Oh my goodness! Look at you eating that yummy pizza! Your sister can’t eat pizza because she can’t even eat food yet!” and let them hear you telling the baby things like: “Look at your big sister on the swings! Someday she can teach you to do cool big kid things like that!”
During this adjustment period, you may see a lot of meltdowns, resistance, and pushing of limits from your firstborn. Set your normal limits, but do so with intentional compassion and empathy. Their world has been rocked. Everything is different now and they’re realizing it’s never going back to the way it was. There may be grief in that that your child needs to express through these challenging behaviors. Make space for these feelings, and don’t take it personally.
Predictability is key
This is a time of a lot of upheaval in your eldest’s life, so it’s an especially poor time to introduce other major changes in their lives like enrolling them in a program that involves separating from you for the first time, potty learning, or weaning from a bottle. Try to make changes like these far ahead of the new sibling’s appearance on the scene.
Make sure your first child knows what’s going to happen during the day so that nothing is too surprising. This will give them a sense of security during this topsy-turvy moment in their little lives. As best you can, try to keep their schedule the same as it was before the baby so that they have an idea of what they can expect to happen each day. Of course, there will be times when this is impossible! You can only do what you can do.
Get your older child involved
When the baby needs to be cared for, invite your older child to help in some way—and be okay with them refusing. Can they bring you a clean diaper or help you zip up the baby’s snowsuit? Hold the baby a moment while you get the bottle? Inviting them to be involved in caring for the baby helps them feel proud of their important role in the family as an older sibling. Let it be okay if they’re not interested every time.
Talk about your needs rather than the baby’s needs
Rather than spark resentment for their sibling in your older child by implying that the baby’s needs trump their needs, encourage more frustration tolerance in your older child by talking about your availability and needs. “I hear that you want to play. My hands are/my body is busy right now. When I’m free, I’ll be ready to play.”
Validate the experience of being an older sibling
Be honest with your older child. Let them know that you know how challenging it can be to have a new baby in the family. “Your brother cries a lot, huh? It can get really loud in here, and it’s not always easy, I know! Right now he needs our help a lot, but it won’t always be like this. When he’s older he’ll be able to have a lot more fun with you!”
When your eldest talks about wanting to send their baby sibling back to the hospital or talk about not liking that the baby is there, don’t try to talk them out of these feelings or lecture them about how they should say kinder things. Instead, validate that being an older sibling isn’t always easy. Let them know that they can come to you with these and any other feelings they may have around this drastic change.
Call attention to the new relationship
Rather than just refer to the baby by name or as “the baby”, talk about the baby as they relate to your firstborn. So refer to “your sibling/sister/brother.” Instead of “Baby J needs a diaper change," you might say, “Let’s get a new diaper for your sister.” This can help your eldest understand their sibling not only as an individual but in relation to themselves.
Carve out special time with each child
At least once a day, during the baby’s naptime, spend quality time with your eldest. Set a timer for whatever your emotional/physical limit is—let’s say it’s 10 minutes. For 10 minutes, put your technology aside, give your oldest kiddo 100% of your attention. Tell them ahead of time what your parameters are, but let your child know that outside of that, you’ll do whatever activity they’d like for 10 minutes. Your job is just to follow your child’s lead without judgment or correction.
Similarly, when your eldest is asleep or otherwise occupied, you can spend 10 minutes following your baby’s lead in a similar way. Lay your infant on their back with two or three visually interesting objects nearby. Rather than dangle things in front of your baby or try to purposefully direct their attention to you or some other thing, quietly notice what your baby gazes at all on their own. Talk to your baby about what you’re noticing them noticing: “Oh! Are you seeing the shadows of the trees on the wall? They’re moving in the breeze, huh? So pretty!” or “Oh! That was a loud horn honking outside, and it surprised you! I see your legs kicking!”
No two families are going to have the same experience. There’s no one way it’s “supposed” to go.
Don’t shrug off heavy feelings
If you notice that you’re starting to have dark thoughts or feelings about parenting an additional child—don’t take this lightly. Postpartum mood disorders like anxiety and depression are serious issues for gestational and non-gestational parents alike. It’s important to get help instead of trying to power through and letting feelings like this fester. If you find yourself overwhelmed by sadness or worry, talk to your doctor or a mental health practitioner right away.
Make time for yourself
Certainly, as a parent, many of your child’s needs are going to come first, but if you’re prioritizing your children at the expense of your own physical and mental health, how are you going to continue meeting their needs? Often parents think that by neglecting their own needs they are doing something good for their kids, but your kids will be more positively impacted by seeing you model self-care than self-sacrifice. So make sure to prioritize your own sleep, nutrition, and 5-minute showers!
Learn to ask for help
Those first few weeks after child #2 arrives is generally a time of “survival mode” while learning the new rhythm of life with an infant. If possible, ask a partner, family member, or other trusted adult to spend some special time with your older child both at home and out doing activities with them. Once you feel ready, ask a friend to come to your home and hang out with both of your kids or take them out for even just an hour so you can get some sleep or just some breathing room. Or, have someone take the baby for an hour so that your eldest can have small pockets of exclusive time with their parent(s) without their sibling present.
Trust that your older child will eventually adjust.
You can do this. Really.
In your mind’s eye, it may seem impossible to imagine being about to clothe, feed, and love two kids when you’re barely holding it together with one! Some parents actually endorse finding it easier to transition from one to two kids than from no children to one child! Others swear that going from two to three children was easier than one to two. Parents of two children have actually described feeling more capable, knowledgeable, and confident than they did the first time around. Baby needs can seem less like a crisis and are more easily taken in stride with your second child. In the end, though, no two families are going to have the same experience. There’s no one way it’s “supposed” to go. Your experience will be your own. Either way, remind yourself that you’re a capable parent, and you can do hard things. Try to remain flexible enough to play whatever hand you are dealt.
Trust that your older child will eventually adjust. There is often a fear that the older child will be neglected. While it’s true that you’ll have to be intentional to make sure you’re meeting both kids’ needs, there’s nothing emotionally harmful about becoming an older sibling.
Ultimately, the better you take care of yourself, the better parent you can be for your kids. Cut all family members some slack—this is a huge transition for everyone, and luckily, it’s only temporary!