When I imagined telling my firstborn that I had a baby in my belly and that he was going to be a big brother, I envisioned an excited squeal, a heart-melting hug and a ridiculously sweet family moment.
What I didn’t expect was: “But why?”
Yes, that’s what my then-three-year-old said when I broke the big news to him. I stifled an urge to laugh, and then froze. Did he think that my having another child meant that he wasn’t enough? Had I messed up this announcement? Was he going to resent us and this baby?
I took a deep breath, told him how much we loved him and explained things a bit more while showing him a sonogram picture. He listened for a bit—and then went back to playing with his toys.
Yeah, that wasn’t quite how I’d expected it to go. But kids are their own little people, with their own thoughts and big emotions. And this announcement, in particular, can turn their little worlds completely upside down, so it’s really important to get right.
That means striking a good balance of matter-of-factness and empathy, according to Erica Reischer, a California-based psychologist and the author of What Great Parents Do. “Don’t oversell it," she advises. "And if they do show a certain reaction that isn’t what we hoped, roll with it.”
So how do you broach this subject in a positive way that’s good for your relationship with your child and paves the way for a stellar sibling relationship? For starters, avoid fanfare and over-the-top antics. Instead, limit this conversation to a party of three—you, your significant other and your child—and set aside some time when everyone is reasonably happy, well rested and well fed. Then follow these guidelines depending on the age of your firstborn.
As volatile as toddlers can be, they’re the easiest in terms of breaking the initial pregnancy news. They don’t fully understand that the baby you’re talking about in abstract terms will be stealing Mommy’s attention and their toys in a few short months, so it’s not really a problem for them (yet).
Keep your announcement simple and straightforward, says parent coach Dawn Huebner, author of the self-help book for kids What to Do When You Worry Too Much. “I'm an advocate of correct terminology,” she adds, “so I’d say something like, ‘Mommies have a special part in their body called a uterus. That’s where babies grow. I have a baby in my uterus, and next spring (or whenever), it will come out, and you’ll have a brother or sister.’”
Since it’s hard for toddlers to fully comprehend that you’re growing an actual human being in your body, it’s generally a good idea to wait until you’re showing a bit, likely around that 12-week mark. That might mean keeping a lid on the baby news so your child doesn’t overhear you talking about it with someone else. Still, when you do tell your firstborn, make sure you’re ready for everyone from your next-door neighbour to the guy behind the fish counter to know you’re expecting. “If you’re worried about miscarrying or aren’t ready for friends or coworkers to know, wait,” says Reischer. “You want [your] to be among the first to know, but you don’t want them to have to keep a secret.”
Questions about the pregnancy and baby will likely be minimal, but you’ll want to have some age-appropriate discussions about what to expect. As the weeks progress, consider getting a doll that can be your child’s “baby” and model different ways that your little one will be able to help once the real baby arrives. The more you can prepare your toddler, the better.
Each age group comes with its own challenges, but preschoolers can be particularly tricky. They’re used to having you all to themselves, they’re more aware than toddlers, they’re not as in control of their emotions as older kids, and they’re trying figure out the world around them—and that now includes your pregnancy.
If you think your preschooler asks you a lot of questions now, just wait. Huebner says to expect things on this order: “How do babies grow? How do they come out? How did the baby get there to begin with? Whose room will the baby use? Will the baby touch my toys? Will it be a boy or a girl?”
Be honest and age-appropriate, and don’t go overboard with details. And even though it may occasionally feel like an interrogation, remember that it’s a conversation—and a great way to teach your child that they can come to you with any question, big or small. Books about a baby’s development, as well as about being a big brother or sister, are also helpful.
A word of warning: Expect a little—or a lot—of back and forth in terms of being onboard with this whole sibling thing. “Your preschooler might be excited one minute, making elaborate plans for when the baby is born, and angry the next, not liking the way things are changing,” says Huebner. “Never tell your child that their feelings aren't nice or welcome. Children this age are learning to manage and regulate big feelings, and the best way to do that is to have parents acknowledge and accept them and to make clear that they love and treasure their child, regardless of what they are feeling.”
If you think that telling older kids that you’re expecting is easier because they’re like little grown-ups in so many ways, think again. They’re still kids, and they’ve been the proverbial top dog—and the only dog—for so long that they may be a bit set in their ways.
The key is not to try to talk them out of their emotions. “Telling kids that’s not how they feel about something never really changes their feelings,” explains Reischer. “Over time, it’s just going to persuade them not to tell you how they’re feeling.” Instead, if they don’t seem thrilled about this news, she suggests acknowledging that and then asking what might be worrying them and what might make things better. Older kids may be able to articulate that.
While each child will have different concerns, some common ones might revolve around how a baby might change their day-to-day lives and their relationship with you. Huebner says to be prepared for what-if questions—“What if the baby messes up my stuff? What if you get too busy to play with me?”—as well as questions about if they’ll still be able to do the things they normally do, like go to gymnastics. “Provide reassurance that there will be enough for everyone—enough love, enough time, enough space, whatever it is that your child is concerned about,” she says. “And include your older child in planning and preparing for the baby, but don't have baby be the centerpiece of all interactions.”
Your work is not over once you’ve made your big reveal. Questions will inevitably pop up, and new worries may surface. And if your child starts acting out randomly, it might not be so random at all. “Young children manifest upsets not only in words but also in disruptions in sleep and appetite, or in the ability to control impulses and cooperate,” says Huebner. “Misbehaviour is a sign that children need help managing difficult feelings, so it’s important for parents to be supportive rather than punitive.”
So pay attention to any changes, and remember: No matter how old our firstborns are, they still need us in a big way. A little understanding and a lot of love can help them navigate this new phase of life and get you to that happy family tableau you’ve always imagined.
This article was originally published online in August 2018.