Before answering this question, I always begin by asking a parent to imagine what it would be like if their spouse or partner made an announcement one day, out of the blue, that went something like this:
“I have exciting news. You are a wonderful spouse and I love you very much. But, I have decided for our family that it would be incredible if we got another spouse to live with us and join our family. It is going to be so great! And, you will be the special ‘first’ spouse who gets to teach this new spouse everything you know. You are going to love it!”
Most of us would say something like, “Really?! …Seriously?”
This is basically how the idea of a new baby can come across to an only child. Of course, this news should be shared joyfully; however, I am suggesting that parents be mindful of the magnitude of the changes it will bring to the family dynamic and the questions it may raise for the firstborn.
For the child who has had the undivided attention of the adults in his or her world for the first few years (or more) of life, this is a significant change and a transition with which a young child has nothing to compare it. So, in addition to a predictable schedule, plenty of rest, nutritious food and clear limits, there will undoubtedly be times when they need extra support.
Let’s start with timing. I have seen many parents excitedly share news of their pregnancy with their first born as soon as they themselves receive it. Although generally, I don’t think that keeping secrets from children is a good idea, timing is an important thing to consider when telling a child that they are going to have a sibling.
Young children do not have a good grasp of the concept of time and struggle to comprehend just when this event will happen. Phrases like, “next summer” or “this October” have little meaning for the young child. Young children basically recognize three standards of time: yesterday (which is everything in the past), the present (which is right now) and tomorrow—which is everything in the future. A more sophisticated understanding of time does not fully emerge until age seven.
I have on many occasions seen happy, carefree young children become anxious when they receive this information from their parents very early in the pregnancy. They don’t have a sense of when this event—possibly as long as eight months away—will take place or what it will mean for them.
At the nursery school where I worked, we would even sometimes observe a happy child suddenly turn out-of-sorts. Separation anxiety or other behavior that indicates stress, such as biting or toilet training regression, would appear. Teachers would take note, provide extra support for the child and check in with the parents. Frequently, parents would share the news that they were expecting another child and that there were daily talks about it with their child in an attempt to prepare their child for the baby’s arrival. Their conversations often emphasized how great it was going to be for the child to be a big brother or big sister.
Prior to sharing the big news, it might be helpful to talk with your child about families in general. Ask them questions to determine what they already know about families. Explain that some have just one child, as yours does, some have several children. Have your child think about family models in your immediate family and your circle of friends. Mention that someday your family might grow to have more than one child.
This is an excellent opportunity to point out that not every family is the same. Some have just one mom or dad, or two moms and two dads. The one thing that all families have in common? Lots of love.
Nursery schools often have children bring in photographs of their family to display in the classroom, and this is another good way for children to learn about different family makeups.
I remember interviewing children for a short film that I was making about the Little Folks Nursery School and asking them what a family is. Their responses were endearing and hilarious and went something like this: “a family is people that live together, a family is a place where someone gives you food, a family is the people that take care of you and give you hugs.”
When sharing news of an addition to the family, rather than trying to convince a young one that this new baby is going to be the best thing that has ever happened to them, I suggest framing the news in this way: “We are going to have a new baby in our family.” If you can reference a baby in another family that your child knows, that gives them a concrete example.
“We are excited, just as we were when we were expecting you. Babies are so sweet and cuddly but, in the beginning, I will have to feed them a lot and change their diaper”. While it’s okay to offer the “helper” position, this can add to the confusion when parents push it too hard. Because young children are so literal, they can misunderstand what the expectations are and feel like they will be expected to have too much responsibility.
Unlike my hypothetical story about getting another wife or husband, your child can absorb this news on their terms when the news is calmly and simply presented. And remember, the changes this event will bring to your family are ultimately positive. It may be challenging at times, but by giving your child a sibling, you are giving them a gift. As someone who is the youngest in a family of five children, I can certainly attest to “the more, the merrier.”