young boy next to pregnant mom

The news of a new baby on the way can bring excitement and anticipation. Yet if you have a child already, it can also send shockwaves through the family in the form of sibling rivalry. The arrival of a baby sister or brother can be particularly difficult on toddlers and young children, who lack the developmental skills to understand why they feel the way they do. They may interpret the change to mean that their special role in your life has been usurped, which can lead to fear, frustration, and acting out. This combination is a recipe for family stress.

The key to a successful transition is to communicate with your first child about what will be happening before it actually happens. Preparing him or her for what's to come can go a long way: better behaviour from your child, a less frazzled experience for you as the parent, and a reduction of sibling rivalry.

Setting the wheels in motion well in advance of the baby's arrival will make for a positive sibling experience. Consider adding the following tips to your list:
1. Be up front.
Though you're likely to be caught up in your own nerves, excitement, and apprehensions about your new addition, remember that your toddler has legitimate worries, too. If he or she has been the only child to date, then having to share parental attention with a competing baby will be a big shift. Talking truthfully with your first-born about the changes that will soon take place can make a difference in receptivity and eventual acceptance of the idea.

The timing is important--experts suggest having this discussion about four weeks prior to your scheduled due date. Let your toddler participate in feeling movements and kicks from the sibling on the way.

2. Be specific.
So what should you talk about? Explain what will happen when the baby comes home. Focus on detailing any specific changes that will affect your toddler's daily routine. For example, if one parent is usually in charge of bedtime rituals but the other parent will be temporarily taking over this role, let your child know ahead of time. Provide frequent reassurance that the changes won't affect your toddler's special role in the family.

You can also prepare your toddler for what to expect during the time that you'll be in the hospital for the birth of the baby. Explain how long you will be gone, and who will be there in your absence. If possible, arrange for your toddler to visit you in the hospital and prepare some special roles for "big brother" or "big sister" to help create a positive association with the new arrival.

3. Be inclusive in preparations.
As parents bustle around getting ready for what's to come, young children can feel anxious and left out. Find ways to include your child in simple planning and decision-making. For example, if you're setting up a new room for the baby, ask your toddler's opinion about which colours to choose, or where to place furniture. Keep the choices simple; you can give a choice between two options that you're already considering.

If the changes will affect your toddler's room or daily routines and logistics, begin incorporating the modifications well before the new baby comes. If you'll need to move your toddler to a different room, for example, plan to do so months before the baby's arrival to avoid association between the two events.

Though bringing home a new baby can be a trying transition, taking the time to involve your young child in the process from the start can help the whole family soothe the stress of sibling rivalry.