Big kids are just that: big. They are also still kids and, as a result, are not the most aware of their bodies. For little “big” kids, controlling their bodies to be gentle is a real struggle. Big kids are also curious about everything in their world, and when you’re talking about Mom’s growing belly or their new little sibling, this curiosity is equal parts adorable and aggravating. Finding a balance whereby a big kid can explore their curiosity in a safe way without feeling like their being handled by their parents is a difficult tightrope. Here is what we found worked for us:
(1) Introduce them to other babies. I was extremely lucky in that over half of my mommy friends got pregnant with number two before me. While this proved difficult for some reasons, it was an incredible blessing in my mission to prepare my oldest for the imminent arrival of her younger sibling. Not only was she able to understand “the rules of engagement” with new babies, but she was able to see the transformation from “pregnant Mom” to “not pregnant Mom + baby” with my friends and her friends.
For instance, we were bringing food to a recently delivered friend of ours who we’d seen consistently throughout her pregnancy. My daughter runs to see the baby and does a great job of being gentle and not touching the face and all of that. Then, she goes to give my friend a hug and notices that she no longer has a fully pregnant belly. My 2 year old’s jaw drops and says to my friend, “your baby is gone!” My friend then explains that the baby moved from her belly to the swing. My daughter was absolutely dumb-founded for several seconds and then looks at me, horrified, “Our baby is coming on the outside too?!” I had no idea that she hadn’t truly internalized this inevitable fact of life (even though it had been a consistent source of conversation), and I was grateful that we still had 5 months for that message to sink in!
(2) Allow for exploration. While pregnant, I would let our oldest touch my belly, feel the baby, and listen to the baby (we had one of those at-home dopplers). We also read a couple of books about pregnancy (both with real-life and more kid-oriented pictures), and I would show her pictures of what the baby looked like throughout the pregnancy (she got a big kick out of the fruit-fetus size comparisons).
Once our baby was born, we rarely ever turned down a request from our oldest to give the baby a hug or a kiss. She was allowed to hold him under certain conditions (see “boundaries” below). Basically, we wanted her to feel like she was part of our “team” in taking care of this new life. Giving her “jobs” also helped with this goal. During diaper changes, she could hand me a diaper or wipes, she could throw away the dirty diaper, or she could entertain her brother. During feedings, she could hold his hand, hold my hand, or hand me a burp cloth. With every unavoidable, daily task, we tried to allow for our oldest to “have a place” (or many different places) to express her curiosity.
(3) Try to acknowledge and alleviate any early fears. My oldest has always been sensitive to loud noises (which is ironic because she has the vocal range and natural projection of an operatic soprano), so I was on notice that a crying baby may be difficult for her. For months, we would talk about how babies “didn’t have any words” and “couldn’t speak with words.” That instead, babies could only communicate by crying. My oldest also loved watching Daniel Tiger, and the episode “The Baby is Here” was wonderful for her to understand that we need to decipher the cries. It turned into one of her best bonding times with her brother: trying to translate his crying into words (and later, translating his babbling to us with oftentimes hilariously self-serving results: “But mommy, he wants me to have that toy!”)
(4) Have clear boundaries and be consistent. This seems to be a common theme in parenting, and it holds true here too. Enough is changing in a child’s life when a new baby arrives that there is definitely some comfort in consistent boundaries.
For pregnant mommy, this included not pulling up or down my shirt. Even though she was excited to talk about her forthcoming baby sibling with strangers, undressing mommy to display the “baby bump” or “where the milk comes from” was not an option. Due to a lack of affordable, available childcare, my daughter also came to many doctor’s appointments with me. While she was allowed to witness the preliminary exam (blood pressure, fetal heartbeat, etc), part of our boundaries included her staying in her stroller with her visor down during internal exams (plied with cheerios and shows, she had no desire to do anything else).
After her sibling was born, my oldest had the clear expectation that she could only hold him after asking first, while in a seated position, and with the assistance of an adult. She was also asked to be quiet when he was napping (we have easily-startled kids). These boundaries also extended to our new baby (even though I doubt he was fully conscious of them) and his interactions with his big sister: no pulling hair, biting, or screaming otherwise he couldn’t be with his sister anymore. This boundary setting also helped any jealousy she might have been feeling because he had “boundaries” too.
Curiosity is a natural state of being for young children, and it is precious in its innocence and fervor. That being said, it is also potentially hazardous to a new baby or even a pregnant mommy. Finding ways to foster curiosity while maintaining necessary boundaries is a life lesson that is perfectly exemplified in a big sibling’s relationship with their new baby or pregnant mommy. These concepts helped us find our rhythm, and I hope they enable you to find your family’s balance as well!