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How can I prepare my son for the arrival of his new sibling?

The question: I'm afraid my three-year-old will have a tough time adjusting to his new baby brother or sister. How can I prepare him for the addition to the family?

The answer: The birth of a child is a wonderful miracle and a time of great excitement for the entire family. These miracles do undoubtedly also cause upheaval of the household routine which can be stressful, particularly for young siblings who may not consider the new arrival as a "bundle of joy."

It is almost impossible to predict how a child will react to a new sibling so parents need to be flexible and prepared to change tactics if a certain strategy is not working well. Factors that can influence how a child will react include the age of the child, the number of siblings already in the family, and whether there will be changes in the bedroom and sleeping arrangements when the newborn arrives. Here are some things to consider:

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  • Pregnancy: Children of all ages love to follow the growth of mommy’s tummy and to feel the kick and punch of the unborn sibling. Older kids may appreciate seeing photos of what the fetus looks like at different stages of the pregnancy. This can also be a great opportunity to introduce the topic of sexuality and where babies come from. Let your child’s level of interest and nature of questions guide your discussions. Don’t be surprised if your child seems disinterested, this can be a normal response. Showing photos and videos of your son when he was a newborn can be a great way to break the ice.
  • Just prior to childbirth: Because the onset of labour can be sudden, unexpected, and stressful, it is particularly important to prepare siblings as much as possible for this turbulent time. In particular, discuss what the childcare arrangements are going to be if you and your husband have to leave suddenly for the hospital in the middle of the night. Older children may want to know in advance how and when they will be able to visit with you and the new baby in hospital.
  • Just after childbirth: Children’s reactions to a new baby can vary dramatically from aloof indifference to wanting to play with the baby like a doll. If possible try to schedule some one-on-one time with your son, without the newborn present, to catch up on the events that have occurred in his life since you went into labour. I was always appreciative of friends and family members who brought gifts not only for our newborn baby, but also for her older sibling.
  • The early days: These can be challenging times. You will be recovering from the physical demands of childbirth and nobody in the family will be sleeping well. Preschool siblings are notorious for displaying disruptive behaviours at this time, such as suddenly deciding not to be toilet trained any more! This occurs at a time when you and your husband may have little in the way of mental and physical reserves. Plan to spend some quality time with older children when your newborn is asleep, and try to have some activities at the ready to occupy preschool siblings when you need to be focused on breastfeeding and baby care.

Although preparation and planning is definitely helpful, be aware that labour and childbirth rarely go according to plan so improvisation and flexibility will be critical. Supportive family and friends are also invaluable.

Dr. Michael Dickinson is the head of pediatrics and chief of staff at the Miramichi Regional Hospital in New Brunswick. He's a staunch advocate for children's health in Atlantic Canada through his involvement with the Canadian Paediatric Society.

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