When I volunteered to write this piece, it didn’t dawn on me for a while that, actually, you can’t really prepare them at all. Sure, you can explain that Mummy has a baby in her tummy. They can help you choose new baby clothes and tiny little nappies. They can help to dust off the Moses basket, baby bath and pram, and help to pack the hospital bag. They can even, as mine did, come to midwife appointments to hear the baby’s heartbeat. But the reality of you actually coming home with a new baby in your arms, well as my mother put it ‘imagine how you would have felt, Suzanne, if Gary just moved a new woman into the house and you had no choice but to put up with it.’
So here is my advice – not so much on preparing them, but on damage limitation before and after the baby arrives. It’s from my own experience (I had a second baby when my daughter was two and a half), plus some helpful tips I gleaned from friends.
First of all – and I only realise what good a tip this is in hindsight – don’t make too big a deal of the pregnancy. Well-meaning people will constantly ask your toddler ‘are you excited about being a big brother/sister?’ and ‘won’t it be BRILLIANT having a baby to play with?’ Well, no, it won’t. Because newborns do absolutely nothing for a good few months except glue themselves to Mummy’s boobs, cry and poo. From a toddler’s perspective, they are completely boring and pointless. So play it all down a bit and be honest with your toddler – tell them that babies cry all the time and that Mummy will be really tired and have to hold the baby a lot. If they’re expecting Christmas morning with fireworks and a massive chocolate cake on top, they’ll be sorely disappointed.
When the baby has arrived and you’re back home, one key thing for us was keeping our daughter’s routine exactly the same. If they go to crèche, keep sending them (if money permits). Do all the playgroups and usual stuff you normally do. Stick with the same mealtimes and bedtime. The baby will just have to come along for the ride. Toddlers love routine and despise change, so try your utmost to keep things as consistent as possible. I fondly remember reading my toddler her bedtime story and even tucking her into bed with one hand while breastfeeding the baby.
Another key thing is allowing the toddler to get involved. Let them help you change nappies, feed the baby their milk, bring them toys, give them cuddles. Try not to be too precious about the new baby – we all handle our firstborns as if they’re bone china, but a few rough cuddles won’t kill them. It’s important for the toddler to feel included and that they’re a brilliant help. I very quickly trained my toddler to bring me babywipes, nappies, Sudocrem and a nice cup of tea whenever I needed them (ok not the last one) and she loved, and still does love, helping out.
It’s also good to try to set aside time for just you and the toddler. Let someone else take the baby off your hands and do something fun with your little pal. It reassures them that they’re still hugely important in your life, even though for the time being you can’t give them as much attention as you’d like.
I tried to prepare my daughter for the new baby’s arrival and she seemed cool with it, telling everyone that my bump was ‘little sister’. Cute. All good. But when I came home from hospital, what I wasn’t expecting was how horribly insecure it made her. She had nightmares every night for months and would consequently refuse to go to bed. She invented a ‘sore foot’ that made her cry for hours (there was nothing wrong with her foot). She wanted me, and only me, to do absolutely everything for her, from talking her down after a nightmare to changing her nappies. It was exhausting and I was riddled with guilt.
But that was months ago and now, things are brilliant. The two girls adore each other and my toddler is back to her lovely, happy self. And if you, like me, are an older sibling, just remember this – none of us are permanently damaged as a result of new siblings coming along. I would wager that nobody can even remember what life was like beforehand. It was the hardest time of my life but now, when I see my two daughters rolling around on the carpet breaking their sides laughing at something only they know about, it was all worth it.