For some, figuring out if and/or when to have a child can be difficult. But, in my experience, deciding when to have another child is much, much more challenging. Not only do you remember how damn tiring it is to have an infant, but you have to take into consideration whether this decision is right for both you and the child you already have. Thankfully, there are signs your kid is ready for a sibling that can help you make this (pretty big) life choice.
Romper spoke with Dr. Alyssa Fritz, Ph.D., a pediatric psychologist at Johns Hopkins All Children’s Hospital, to better understand how our kids might be trying to clue us in on their feelings regarding another sibling joining the fold.
I knew, deep down, that I wasn't done having kids. But it was hard to imagine how my life would change after it had already changed so drastically when my son was born. He was challenging, too — deeply sensitive and required, it seemed, more dedicated attention than most of his peers. So when I became pregnant with my son's sister, I wondered whether my first child was going to resent me for rocking his world.
My husband and I did everything we could to prepare him — we talked about when "Baby Sister" was going to join us (a few months); we talked about where she would sleep (first with mommy and daddy and then she would share a room with him); what she would do when she was first born (mostly sleeping); that she would love him because he was going to be her big brother.
Our kid was having none of it and would shut down any and all "Baby Sister" conversation like a stern but temporarily hysterical dowager in a Tennessee Williams play. And yet, somehow, when she arrived it all worked out.
"Fortunately," Dr. Fritz tells Romper, "children are fantastic learners and tend to model behaviors after their caregivers. This means it’s very helpful to talk to your older child in a developmentally appropriate way about the arrival of the new sibling."
So, really, the question of whether your child is ready for a new sibling comes down, it would seem, largely to how you prepare them. Here are some signs that the things you're doing are having the desired effect:
They're Talking About Their New Sibling
Based on the fact that you (probably/hopefully) are excited for the arrival of your new baby, this should be easy enough! Be sure to share that enthusiasm with your child. "By showing excitement for the new arrival ... it can help model how to feel and what to do when preparing for the birth of baby sibling," Dr. Fritz says.
So if you find your kid has picked up on the general family mood, you're on your way to a smooth transition!
They're Interested In "The Process"
Because what is all this if not a process, right? Whether you're pregnant, adopting, or growing your family with the help of a surrogate, welcoming a baby often feels like a whirlwind and an interminable wait. Fritz suggests keeping your child in the loop. "Families can discuss how the baby is growing [and] look at pictures of when the child was an infant," she says. "Similarly, for families going through the adoption process, the more you can talk about the process and discuss expectations about the adoption at a developmentally appropriate level, the more prepared the older sibling will be when the new child arrives."
If your child engages with you when you talk about the details, that's a great sign.
They Want To Help Prepare
There will likely be physical changes to your child's environment in preparation of a new sibling, and a great way to get them ready for that kind of adjustment is to have them "help." In my experience, kids leap at any modicum of perceived power or responsibility, so this could be a great way to get them on board.
Fritz points out that your child can even present these changes to their new sibling. "When the family arrives home [from the hospital or birth center], one of the older sibling 'jobs' could be to show the baby around the house and to point out things the sibling or the family did to prepare to welcome the baby home."
OK, that's just adorable, right?
They Talk About Being A Big Sibling
It's pretty staightforward, but it really does show that your child has internalized (to the best of their ability) the idea that someone new is coming into their life and that's a really excellent sign that they're ready for this change.
If they're difficulty visualizing this, Fritz suggests pumping up your child by getting them excited about all of the "jobs" they'll get to help with as the older sibling.
They Ask Questions In General
If your child is asking questions, that means they're thinking about the future and feel comfortable enough to discuss the possibilities with you. And, of course, in the genius words of Sesame Street: "Asking questions is a good way of finding things out."
"Keep in mind children are generally pretty good at asking questions they’re curious about," Dr. Fritz says. "So it could be helpful to have some general responses prepared. Responding openly and honestly, even admitting if parents do not know the answer to certain questions, can help children feel comfortable participating in the ongoing process and discussion."
If you know your kid is adaptable, this is excellent news for their "Big Sibling" prospects. But adaptability in kids can be complicated. On the one hand, even an adaptable child may not deal well with a huge change in routine. "Often when the environment changes young children can act out [for example] tantrums, talking back, not following directions, aggression," Dr. Fritz tells Romper.
On the other hand, even kids who seem like they don't do well with change are tremendously resilient. Just because they haven't had to adapt in the past (being an only child and the sole focus of parental attention) doesn't mean they are not capable of it. I say this from my own experience.
Fritz recommends being aware of children's natural reactions to big changes and proactively trying to help them adjust. "It will be important to prioritize five to 10 minutes of one-on-one time each day with your older child (without the baby) playing a favorite game or completing an enjoyable activity," she says. "This quality time can help with the transition and reassure the older sibling that they continue to be loved, valued, and important. If symptoms continue or get worse, it can be helpful to reach out to a pediatrician or to look for referrals for a psychologist or counselor to discuss specific strategies for managing changes in behavior."
They Talk About Their Concerns
Again, the fact that they're discussing it at all means they want to process the idea of becoming an older sibling. Just because some of that process includes fear, doesn't mean you should be concerned that they're not ready.
"If the child expresses worries or anger, it’s important to talk about, and listen to, their concerns," Dr. Fritz says. "Many times a sibling is worried about losing time with parents or whether they have to share their favorite toys, games, clothes, etc. Parents are able to reassure the sibling and continue to have conversations about how excited the family feels preparing for the birth of a new sibling."
Sure, you're ready, but then again, is anyone really ready? Having a child, whether it's your first or your third, can be overwhelming, and never feeling 100% prepared can have you second guessing yourself. Don't let it! But if you find these feelings and doubts overwhelming, either before or after your new baby arrives, don't ignore them.
"Even with all of these family preparations for a new sibling, it’s important to take time to monitor how parents are adjusting as well," cautions Fritz. "The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) show that one out of nine women experience symptoms of postpartum depression."
Remember, your health and wellbeing are important and deserve to be monitored and honored. If you notice symptoms — such as feelings of anger, feeling overwhelmed, withdrawal from loved ones, significant worry about hurting the baby, or feeling guilty and doubting your abilities as a parent — reach out to your primary care doctor, your OB-GYN, or another health provider.
If you or someone you know is experiencing depression or anxiety during pregnancy, or in the postpartum period, contact the Postpartum Health Alliance warmline at (888) 724-7240, or Postpartum Support International at (800) 944-4773. If you are thinking of harming yourself or your baby, get help right away by calling the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255, or dialing 911. For more resources, you can visit Postpartum Support International.