Q: We have a 5-month-old daughter and just found out that I’m expecting. Our daughter will be 14 months old when our second is born. We’re not sure how to prepare her for the new baby since she'll barely be talking by then. Do children this young feel sibling rivalry?
A: It’s great that you are already thinking about how to prepare your daughter for her new sibling. Even very young children can have strong feelings and reactions to the arrival of a brother or sister. Up until now, your first child has had your undivided attention and love. So having a new sibling will be a real loss for her. At the same time it will be a big gain. Having a sibling helps children learn about sharing and cooperation, and can be a source of friendship and support for the rest of their lives.
While in the earliest months of your pregnancy you may not even be showing yet, your baby will likely be very sensitive to the changes she detects, especially if you are struggling with morning sickness and fatigue. She is likely to react to your changing body and moods. She may become more clingy and fussy, as this is a common reaction for young children when they are dealing with change or are confused about a situation. So tune in to how she is reacting and give her lots of support and comfort during this time. Also keep routines and interactions as predictable as possible to reassure her that everything is, and will be, okay. Finally, as you prepare for the birth, try to keep talk of the delivery (including your worries or concerns) to a minimum around your toddler. She is not able to understand the complexities of labor and delivery, and may only respond to your tone of voice and feel frightened or worried.
As for when to talk with her directly about the new baby, you’re right that this is a challenge. Your daughter will probably not have a very extensive speaking vocabulary at 14 months and won’t be able to understand the idea of what a pregnancy is (or a new sibling, for that matter). Also, young toddlers don’t have the capacity to remember an idea like “a baby’s coming” for very long, so talking about the pregnancy too soon may confuse her.
The good news is that while your child may not be speaking a lot, the words she is able to understand are growing by leaps and bounds. This means that books about new babies and big sisters can be helpful, even though she won’t grasp their full meaning. Another idea is to look through photos of your daughter’s first months together and talk to her about what happens when a new baby comes home. If she is beginning to engage in pretend play, you can play with baby dolls, mimicking the daily rituals she will soon see you do with your newborn, like diaper changing, breastfeeding, and bathing. Pretend play can also be a great way for your daughter to express the mixed feelings she might be experiencing, so don’t worry when she hits or talks aggressively to her dolls or stuffed animals. This is a safe and healthy outlet for her.
Think about ways to include your daughter in the birth. Consider having her come to the hospital afterward, both to see that you are okay and to feel a part of the excitement surrounding the baby. As you think through this decision, it’s important to confirm that the hospital is welcoming of young children and has a warm, pleasant atmosphere. Also, think about your child’s temperament. How might she react in this kind of setting and situation? If you think it may be overwhelming or upsetting to her, a visit to the hospital, especially if you will only be there for a day or two, may not be the best idea. If you do have your daughter visit, have her bring a game or toy the two of you can play together. If you are up for it, have her cuddle with you in your bed as you read a story. While she will certainly have some interest in the new baby, don’t be surprised if she is most interested in you. Think of this visit as an opportunity to reassure her that she is still loved and important to you.
Consider giving your daughter a baby doll as a “gift” from her sibling. Over time, as she better understands pretend play, you can suggest that she care for her doll as you care for the baby. Most importantly, she needs the security of consistent care and consistent routines. Some disruption is an inevitable consequence of having a new baby, but preparing for and minimizing the changes in routine can help.
Finding ways to make your firstborn feel special is also very important. Making one-on-one time each day for you and your daughter, and for your partner and your daughter, may limit the regression to baby behaviors like clinging, asking to go back to drinking from bottles, and crawling rather than walking. (This temporary regression is common when a new baby arrives.) If you stay patient, loving, and supportive, your daughter will not only continue to thrive, but will also grow to love her promotion to big sister.