Whatever your child's reaction to the new baby, problems can be minimized with proper planning and management in these key areas:
A space of three to four years between children is ideal, agree most child-rearing experts. A child less than three years old is likely to have lots of difficulty seeing his or her parents' attention going to a younger sibling. A child four years or older may have become accustomed to being an "only," and may resent sharing the spotlight. Three-year-olds are beginning to do a lot on their own, and therefore require less parental attention.
Include your older child in such activities as shopping for baby furniture, cleaning and decorating the nursery, and talking about names for the baby. This helps your youngster to feel as if he or she is playing an important role in bringing the baby into the family. The greater your first child's "investment" along these lines, the more likely he or she will be to develop feelings of closeness and affection toward the baby-long before the big day.
Once the baby is born, continue to find ways of engaging your older child's help. You'll boost your youngster's self-esteem and minimize feelings of competition with the baby for your attention. For the child who's too young to help without getting underfoot, buy a baby doll and accessories. When the older child begins clamoring for attention while your hands are full with the baby, say, "I'm feeding the baby. It's time for you to feed your baby, too."
The underinvoloved child is likely to regard the baby as a trespasser. Expressions of jealousy signal that the first child is feeling left out and needs more parental attention and more involvement with the baby.
Try to avoid surprises that might cause your child to feel angry or frustrated. Don't suddenly take the older child out of a crib or room because of the baby, for example. Your firstborn will have enough to deal with without feeling as if the baby has just moved in and taken over.
Be sure to include your firstborn in the discussions and planning regarding the new baby. Let him or her feel the baby's movements. Show the child his or her pictures as a newborn. Talk about your youngster's responsibilities after the baby is born.
It might help to read your older child a book that explains, in child's terms, where babies come from, how they are born, and what they are like at first. If your firstborn is having problems with jealousy, you might investigate some child-oriented books on the subject.
The fact that most babies are born away from home often makes it difficult for young children to relate to the event. Further, the rules and formalities of hospitals tend to increase the first child's feelings that he or she has no part in the process. If the hospital or birthing center has a sibling program, sign up your older child well in advance. If allowed, take your child for a first look at the new baby through the nursery window. If these aren't options, at least make sure that the older child speaks to Mom by phone a couple of times a day, especially right before bedtime.
Encourage friends and relatives to bring a small surprise for the older child when they're coming with a gift for the baby. Ask them to make a bit of a fuss over your older child as well, congratulating the youngster on how cute his or her baby brother or sister is, and how proud he or she must be.