Toddlerhood is a wild, exciting, and deeply challenging time. I feel like my 18-month-old daughter is learning and changing every single day...probably because she is. It’s incredible to watch her explore the world and understand more and more.
Yet there’s still so much that seems new and unknown to her. She now knows to point at the cheese drawer in the fridge when she wants some cheese (or grab the whole block and refuse to let go), and when I ask her to get the dog’s leash or put her t-shirt in the laundry basket, she (sometimes) complies. She’s listening carefully and taking in so much unfolding around her. Yet her language is, as of now, limited to a few words: “Ace” (the name of our maltipoo), “Mama” (she only says this while whining), and a wonderfully enthusiastic “Yeah!”
I’ve been pregnant for about half of her life, and her new baby or brother will arrive in just two months. How do I prepare her for a change that feels so gigantic and yet so abstract? After all, she was a Covid baby who didn’t get to spend time with too many other little ones. A lot of the advice I’ve read, like to take your kid to your ultrasound with you to watch the images of the proto-baby growing inside you on the screen, is just not possible during pandemic times—even my partner is not permitted to join me at these appointments.
So, I’ve asked friends, parents, and experts for ways to prep her for becoming a big sister and navigating the tidal wave of change that a new baby will inevitably bring. Here are some small actions that can help your whole family feel a little bit more prepared:
Even for adults, birth is hard to wrap our heads around. It feels a little like science fiction that there is a baby growing in my uterus as I write this. Talk with your toddler about pregnancy and show them pictures of the time before they were born. This is also a great way to help your toddler start to wrap their head around what will unfold over the coming months.
Babies demand enormous time and attention, which means less of any parent’s time for your toddler (who aren’t exactly famous for being low maintenance themselves). Whether it’s a grandparent or a babysitter, helping your toddler build a relationship and comfort with another trusted caregiver will make life easier for everyone when your demands of time and energy are even more divided.
That being said, spend one-on-one time together as much as possible. While you want your toddler to be prepared, you also want her to know that you’ll always love her and that she’ll always be special to you. Make it a priority time to spend some quality time together just the two of you, now and when the baby arrives.
Ebonie Bergman, a Maryland-based software engineer who has a 2-year-old, a 4-year-old, and a baby on the way, suggests “getting some books to prepare her for the baby's arrival” and help tell the narrative of what she can expect. Bergman recommends Waiting for Baby and My New Baby by Rachel Fuller, and I am a Big Sister! by Caroline Jayne Church.
Illinois-based Strategic Communications Consultant and mom of three Stephanie Denzer told me it was helpful to “position the little sibling as ‘his baby,’” which felt her older son feel more involved in the whole process. “Big brother did a lot of talking about ‘my baby’ at the beginning, and taking ownership seemed to help him have buy in that this was a new addition to his family that he could be proud of, not just something taking up his parents’ attention that he didn’t have any agency over,” said Denzer.
Brand new babies don’t play, so you might have to work a bit to help your toddler feel connected. Asking him to help you dress the baby or help gather diapers for changings will give him a sense of pride that he’s part of the process, and a sense of achievement for helping in a meaningful way.
Part of growing up is experiencing big feelings. It’s totally normal for your toddler to feel jealous and angry when your baby comes home, and they don’t yet have the communication skills to talk through these emotions. Model talking about your own feelings. If your child is sad, let them take the time to cry. If they’re angry, allow them to express their anger by using words, jumping, squeezing a pillow, or in any way that is safe. The turbulence will pass.
We still have some work to do with this one, as my daughter enthusiastically reaches to pull my dog’s ears or yank my husband’s glasses off his face. A doll can be great practice, as your kid can try out holding it on her lap and stroking it softly, just like she'll soon be doing with the new baby. We’re trying to praise our daughter for this gentle touch, which feels so much better than the alternative.
This new baby and toddler chapter will be intense, but it is also brief. I’m reminding myself of this as I gear up for those sleepless nights that blur into days and my own fear of the unknown. I know there will be serious challenges and monumental joy, and then we’ll all move on to the next season of our lives.
Even though you’ve got a mile-long to-do list, preparing your toddler for baby’s arrival is worth prioritizing. It sure won’t be easy, but fostering support, communication, gentleness, and perspective will make the ride a little easier and a lot more enjoyable.