Ten tips for breaking it to the firstborn

Ten tips for breaking it to the firstborn

Having a second baby is exciting for you, but boy, can it cause your firstborn to panic. Thankfully, Dr Laura Markham knows how to calm them down


1. Recognise that your pregnancy is stressful to your child

Why? Because you aren't as energetic and patient as you used to be. Because you don't pick her up as readily. Because there's less room on your lap. Because she's worried about what it will mean to have a baby in the house. There can be added stresses, such as weaning or moving to a big kid bed or even a new house. Be aware that all of this can be hard on your child. Expect some acting out or regression.

2. Get any big changes out of the way before the birth

Room changes, weaning or moving, your child needs time to adjust without associating these changes with the baby.

3. Emphasise your child's uniqueness

Talk about what a wonderful baby he was, and what a wonderful boy he is now. Tell him there is only one of him in the whole world and that no one could ever replace him in your heart.

4. Don't overfocus on the baby.

Naturally you're excited, and hopefully he's excited, too. But to him, the baby isn't real yet, and his life now is. If you make everything about the baby, he's bound to resent it. When friends ask your child what he thinks about becoming a big brother, and he doesn't seem to know what to say, change the subject to: 'We're looking forward to the baby, but we don't really know what it will be like. Right now, Jason has his hands full building train tracks...'

5. Let your child express his full range of feelings throughout the pregnancy and birth

Expect him to veer from excitement to impatience to worry. Respond with empathy to all of it: 'It sounds like...' 'You're excited that you'll get to show your sister how to go sledging.' 'You're tired of people asking all the time how you feel about becoming a big brother.' 'You wish my back didn't hurt so I could pick you up more, like I used to.'

6. Make sure your child knows he still has an important role in the family

He's always been the baby in your family, and he may well feel displaced. Be specific to help your child feel seen and valued for who he is and all the ways he contributes to the family: 'Carlos, I love the way you help me when we're at the supermarket... we're such a great team!' or, 'Sara, I love the way we laugh together... do you know it's so much fun to be with you!'

7. Give a context if you can't relate as usual, to reduce resentment of the baby.

Explain to your child that it's hard for your body to carry a baby inside, plus carry him outside for a long time, but that you love him and want to hug him, and hold him as much as possible. Find as many opportunities to do that as you can.

8. Be aware that your child may hear things that will worry him

For instance, one five-year-old I know happened to see a soap opera at a neighbour's in which a pregnant woman's baby died at birth. Frightened, but scared to tell his mother about what he saw as a likely tragedy ahead, he became miserable and difficult. Luckily, instead of punishing him for his belligerence, his mother told him she thought he must be worried and upset. 'Are you worried about whether I will have enough time for you when the baby comes?' she asked. 'No,' he responded, 'I'm worried the baby will die!'

His mum was able to explain to him that most of the time in our country, modern medicine is able to keep babies and mothers completely safe. She pointed out all the families they knew who had babies, and how these babies had been safely born. After this conversation, the five-year-old relaxed and returned to his usual cheerful and co-operative self.

9. Keep your relationship with your older child as smooth and affectionate as possible

She needs to be secure in your love to handle the arrival of a sibling with equanimity. Naturally she'll be testing you to be sure you still love her.

10. When you pack your bag for the hospital, involve your child.

Prominently include a photo of her. Also secretly pack a small present that you have bought and wrapped that will be from the new baby to each big sibling. You might want to include a card from the baby to the older sibling, saying something like, 'Thank you for singing to me while I was growing. I am so excited to finally be ready to be born so I can be with you. I can't wait to learn from you and be friends with you. I feel so lucky that you are my big brother. I love how strong and gentle you are. I am tiny now but I promise to grow as fast as I can so I can play with you. I love our family.'

Some parents object to this, because, of course, the baby had nothing to do with this card and gift. But I have never heard of an older sibling questioning it; they all love it. If your child does ask, you can simply explain that the baby can't talk yet, but if she could, this is what she would say.


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