When I became pregnant with Joey, Anneliese was just under a year old. I knew she couldn’t possibly understand what was really happening, and what was going to change with our family in just a few months, but I did my best to prepare her for his arrival. Considering that upon seeing him the first time, Anneliese greeted him with an affectionate, “My baby!” and sweet kisses, I think I managed to do a good job preparing her. Of course, some of that is just her personality, but that’s a factor none of us can control.
How to prepare your toddler for a new baby arriving soon
1. Babies, Everywhere!
Start early with exposing your toddler to younger babies. Go to playdates, library story time, or other activities where they’ll be present. If you have friends with young babies, that’s even better! Ask if you can hold the baby for a few minutes, and let your toddler see that even if you hold another child, you’ll always cuddle your big toddler again afterward.
Teach “gentle hands” and “soft touches” from the start. Welcome your toddler to gently touch the baby (if it’s okay with the baby’s parents) in a sweet way, supervising closely. Use positive language to guide her to proper touch. Examples are:
“Very sweet hands. You’re being very gentle with this baby.”
“Oh, hitting like that can hurt a little tiny baby. Let’s hold his hand gently instead, like this.”
“Can you help me find his toes? Let’s count his toes.”
“You are being so careful with this little baby. He likes when you touch his cheek. See him smile?”
If you don’t have “access” (ha!) to babies in order to practice these skills, pets or baby dolls act as good stand-ins.
2. A book is worth… a thousand words?
Well that doesn’t make as much sense as I thought it would. But really, children’s books are super-helpful. Any books that include babies in them can spark discussion (even if at this young age it’s mostly one-sided). Point out how the parent in the book is holding the baby, or the types of toys babies like to play with.
Some books are geared specifically toward preparing an older child for a baby to join the family. Two that I absolutely love are:
My New Baby, which has very simple text, bright pictures, and can serve as a discussion-starter. Despite the baby being carried in a car seat on the cover (which deterred me from the book for a while), the family in the book is definitely more hands-on. The mother breastfeeds the baby, everyone snuggles together in the big bed in the morning, and when they go for a walk, the baby is worn in a soft structured baby carrier. Anneliese still LOVES this book.
What Baby Needs, which I thought might be a little complicated for a one year old to grasp at times, but over the last year of reading it frequently (Anneliese still requests it often, and notices when things in our day are “Like Baby Needs!!!”), it has really sunk in. This is another attachment-oriented family. It explains why babies must nurse so often, or why they might take bottles of expressed milk, shows babywearing, running errands, the baby sleeping in a cosleeper beside the parents’ bed, playing as a family, and the older children playing with Daddy without the baby around. At the end, it says, “Soon the baby will hold your hand, smile at you, sit up, and play!” Anneliese loves to hold Joey’s hand, and will tell him, “Sit up!” She can’t wait to play with him more when he gets bigger, and she knows it’s coming.
3. Establishing Ownership
I had always told Anneliese that certain toys belong to the dog, because I didn’t want her playing with gross slobbery toys. That backfired in a way, because then she would pick up the toys all the time, to bring them to Zora. But I learned that she really understood the concept of ownership. If I said, “That belongs to Daddy.” (for a tool, a pen, his phone, whatever) she would bring it to him, or leave it alone.
So when I started preparing for our new baby, I would tell her, “This bed (cosleeper) belongs to Joseph. When Joseph comes out of my belly, he can sleep here.” Or, “This toy is for Joseph when he can hold things. You can play with it now, but when he wants to play with it, you can put it in his hand.”
These things weren’t off limits by any means, but from the beginning, I made sure she knew that they weren’t her things. She has plenty of toys and belongings, so I could always direct her to something that WAS hers too.
If you are going to be passing things down from the toddler to the baby, do so well in advance. If your toddler is in a crib, and your baby will sleep in it, for example, transitioning at 8.5 months through your pregnancy is going to make the toddler associate “losing” her property with the baby’s arrival. Instead, shop for a “big bed” as early on as you’d like, celebrate the changes and your older child’s milestone without linking it to anything about the baby. Then, later, you can say, “You slept in this crib when YOU were a baby! Now it belongs to the new baby for HIM to sleep in!”
4. Be Patient
Remember, your family is going through some BIG changes. You might be tired, or unable to play in the same ways, and the air in the house FEELS different with a new baby on the way. Pets can sense it, and so can other kids.
In the days when birth is approaching, and the days afterward, it can be easy to switch to a mindset of “managing” your toddler. Beware of this. Of course it wouldn’t be a conscious decision, but it would be easy to accidentally say something like, “Let me feed the baby please. Go play over there.” Instead, try something like, “The baby is in my arms having some milk. Why don’t you sit in Daddy’s lap so he can read us all a story?”
Make sure your husband or partner is on board with this attitude too. Instead of, “Let’s let Mommy have quiet time with the baby,” focus on the actual activity the toddler will be doing, “Why don’t we go play with sidewalk chalk outside for a while?”
5. No Baby Blame
In a related category, be sure not to place blame on the baby. Saying things like, “Mommy is very tired right now because the baby woke up 4 times last night… so we can’t play that game,” or, “We have to stay home from the park right now because the baby is about to take a nap,” or “We have to go home now because the baby is getting cranky.” Remove the baby from the equation, OR present the baby in a positive light or with a positive association.
Try, “Let’s color these pictures right now. I’m a bit too sleepy for playing tag,” or, “When the baby wakes up from his nap, then we can go to the park! Yay!” or, “It’s time to go home now. What toys will you play with when we get there?”
6. A Special Gift
A lot of families will wrap up a special gift, to be given to the older child “from the baby” when the baby is born. I originally got a sweet baby doll for Anneliese to have when Joey was born, but ended up giving it to her far in advance. But I love the idea of a gift from the baby to the other siblings, like a peace offering almost.
Even if you don’t do that exactly, it’s nice to keep the older kids in mind when the baby seems to be getting all of the attention. If you go out and buy new clothes for the baby, maybe let the toddler pick out a new book to take home. This doesn’t have to be excessive, every shopping trip, or expensive. Just remember that your older child wants to feel remembered, included, and important.
7. Stay Flexible
There isn’t any one proven formula for preparing EVERY toddler for EVERY baby. Everyone is different, and that includes the littlest people. So stay flexible, be prepared to change your game plan, and be aware of how your actions and words affect the smallest members of your family.
This is such an exciting time, and hopefully it will be one that EVERY person in your household can look back on fondly later.
Congratulations on your exciting news (I’m assuming you’re reading this because you’re adding another family member), and please pass these tips on to other expecting mothers by clicking the sharing buttons below.