You’re ready for the next baby to arrive, but what about the kid you’ve already got?
Things might have gone better if my daughter had been a boy.
Sadly my first-born son, who we’d spent months preparing for the seismic change of going from Very Special and Unique Only Child to someone with a sibling, was very keen on having a brother.
So when I arrived home from the hospital, floating in that fuzzy cloud of elation and exhaustion that envelops you after spending 14 hours watching your partner bring new life into the world, it’s fair to say he did not take the news well.
In fact, he screamed, then he cried, then he threw some stuff.
This seemed like a good time to give him the gift that his new sister had brought him, a Buzz Lightyear toy, which did, admittedly, change the way he felt about her. At least until he got to the hospital.
The initial moments were touching, heart-warming even, as he cradled her implausibly tiny head in his beautiful, soft little hands and smiled up at his Mum (their shared Mum from this day forth) with genuine delight.
And then she woke up and started squawking, sounding very much like a velociraptor and my son screamed in fear, ran to the other side of the room and covered his ears, quaking in fright.
“How much does she do that, Daddy?”
Sometimes it’s best to withhold some of the truth.
The simple fact is that it’s not really possible to fully prepare your toddler—previously the single, solitary thing at the centre of your universe, for the arrival of a brother or sister (although my experience is certainly a powerful argument for finding out the sex of your second one before they arrive).
That’s because the whole experience is so hugely life changing for them, just as it was for you when they came along.
But there are some steps you should take, here’s a quick list of ideas to get you started.
1. Give them plenty of warning
Some people advise not telling your toddler about the new arrival until the second trimester, but if your partner is having morning sickness or other issues early on, it’s best to explain why (“Mummy is carrying your little sister, and it’s hard work having a baby inside you”).
It’s also important to give them as much time to prepare for the big change as possible, and to be free to ask any questions they might have.
2. Use their imagination
As the pregnancy progresses, get them to think about what’s going on (“Your baby sister is as big as an orange now, isn’t that incredible?”) and tell them that by about 24 weeks the baby can hear sound.
This means they’re starting to recognise a voice, your first born’s voice, that will be a part of their lives for years to come. Your toddler might want to sing songs to the growing baby, or tell them stories.
3. Get hands on
A lovely way to make the impending arrival feel real is to get your toddler to feel the kicks and try to guess which bits of the baby are poking Mum’s tummy (“Is that an elbow or a knee?”).
This is a game you can all play together, although it must be kind of weird for the mother. That whole ‘having a living thing inside you’ is something Dads can only imagine, and it’s hard not to think about films like Alien when you do.
4. Picture this
A great way of making the whole thing seem relevant to your toddler is to show them photos of when Mum was pregnant with them, and what they looked like as a tiny baby.
As the big day approaches it’s important for them to start getting their heads around just how small and helpless this new arrival will be, and the fact that it’s not going to be an instant playmate (but that day will come, eventually, and it will be great).
Reading books together about babies, with lots of photos, is also a good idea.
5. Watch your mouth
It’s important to be positive about the new arrival whenever your first is within earshot, because they will pick up on any negativity.
So make it all sound like the most exciting, positive thing in the world, and have those “But how will we cope with two?” and the “Oh shit, the sleepless nights are coming back” discussions when they’re asleep.
6. Show them real babies
If possible, spend time with other people who have smaller babies, so that your child can get a look at how needy and small they are. Get them to practice holding a baby, if you can, because that whole head-cradling thing takes time to learn. And better they practice on someone else! (Jokes).
7. Be realistic
While it’s important to keep positive, let them know there will be screaming and Mum will be busy with the new baby. This is a good time for Dad to step in, of course, and point out that they’ll get to spend a lot more time together with you.
8. Give them things to look forward to
Obviously, things are going to change but you might not want to be too specific about the fact that your first will no longer be the centre of the universe.
So focus on what the future will be like, how they’ll be able to help, how their little brother or sister will always look up to them, how they’ll have so much to teach them, because babies don’t know much and toddlers obviously do.
9. Get baby to bring a gift
Kids sure do love getting stuff, so tell your first born that their new brother or sister will be bringing a gift, something they really want or have been looking forward to.
It may seem like a blatant bribe, but this will help them get excited about the big day, and give them some positive feelings about the new sibling.
My kid loved that Buzz toy his baby sister got him, it was a full two years before he thought to ask “Hang on, where exactly did she buy that from … when she was in Mummy’s tummy?”.
10. Be prepared for a little green giant
As much as you try to get your toddler’s head around the concept of having a brother or sister, it’s hard for them to fully understand. And the reality—the 24/7, noisy, parents’ time soaking reality—of the whole thing is something they will find difficult, at first.
In particular, they can be a bit weird about seeing Mum holding and spending a lot of time with someone else.
So be prepared for some emotional reactions, but also know that this will pass. One day this will turn into one of the most fascinating and rewarding parts of being a Dad—watching the unique bond of love that develops between siblings.
And being deeply grateful for all the time they will one day spend playing with each other, which, compared to the demands of an only child, can be a real blessing. Trust me.