Before I ever had human babies, I had our beautiful dog. Pax, a rescued Doberman, was my constant companion and first living responsibility. It stood to reason, therefore, that when I got pregnant with our first child, I agonized on how to make the transition easier for our first love. Ultimately, we ended up doing a few things that I feel were key to our success:
- research what "the experts" and friends had done to have a successful introduction
practice being gentle (on baby dolls and any kid who's parents would allow them to interact with a full-grown Doberman)
prepare for the hospital and first meeting
By the time we actually brought Jenna, our firstborn, home from the hospital, Pax treated the experience like a non-issue. She was a little clingy at first and didn't like to hear the baby cry, but ultimately handled the experience in stride.
When I got pregnant with our second baby, I started to panic. Jenna, who was just shy of two at the time, was not as prepared as our dog to welcome a new baby: she had never had a litter of puppies; she had significantly less than a 100% success rate listening to basic commands, even when treat-incentivized; and she was barely house trained. I was also under a tighter timeline to research and prepare than I was with Pax.
After I recovered from my initial anxiety, I realized that the basic premises were exactly the same: research, practice, and prepare. One big relief this time around was that there was no fear (regardless of how well-behaved our dog was up to that point) that my firstborn would permanently maim my infant.
1. Research what experts and friends had done to ease the transition.
In reality, you could probably just poll your friends with two kids and be done. The researcher in me needed significant data to finalize my particular path, so I also hit the books (or well-vetted websites).
Generally, everyone had their own nuanced way to introduce their two children for the first time, oftentimes borne out of the nuances of their oldest and how they handled new experiences. There were very few horror stories of things gone disastrously wrong (no maiming), and everyone seemed to remember the experience fondly.
Specifically, here is what I learned most families do when introducing their children for the first time:
- introduce in the hospital (more on that below).
have a gift for the older child(ren).
allow the older child(ren) to hold the baby in a controlled environment (i.e. with adults and pillows present).
In addition to these tried-and-true plans, we took into account the unique qualities of our daughter. Two things were fairly obvious to us: (1) she does significantly better with new experiences if she can process through observation and role play; and (2) she is very attached to Mom. My philosophy was: whatever truths exist about my child’s way of handling change will also exist during this transition.
We practiced a lot. Jenna loves to role play, and we would spend hours (no exaggeration) with her baby dolls practicing everything related to their initial meeting: being gentle, giving space, carseat manners, etc. Incidentally, that is a picture of her practicing to be a “mommy” coming home from the hospital with her “family.”
We also practiced how she might need to interact with me. My first pregnancy resulted in a C-section with some complications, and I was worried about how my daughter may react to my not being my typically exuberant self. We also took advantage of our many recently delivered friends and their second babies. It was a tremendous blessing for Jenna to see the reality of a baby sister or brother for her friends.
3. Prepare for the hospital and first meeting.
Given what I had learned from friends and other sources (including Jenna’s own proclivities), we came up with our ideal situation for the hospital and introducing the siblings. As with all things associated with birth, we knew that this plan could be scrapped at the last minute, but it felt good to have something thought out.
One of the biggest finds for us during this period was a show called "Daniel Tiger's Neighborhood." If you’re not familiar with this TV show, it is basically a cartoon form of Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood. We LOVE it! Right around when we got pregnant, Daniel Tiger aired several episodes related to having a second child, and Daniel’s reaction to this transition as a big brother. Jenna would watch these episodes repeatedly, and we would discuss (and act them out) together.
These episodes were particularly helpful for us in explaining to 2 year old Jenna that Mom and Dad would need to go to the hospital to deliver the baby. The episode does a great job showing that there is a wait time to get to see Mom and Dad again after they leave to deliver the baby. When it came time to leave, she was perfectly comfortable saying goodbye to us, knowing that the next time she would see me, we would have her brother in tow.
We also planned to give Jenna a gift in the hospital (as opposed to waiting until we brought the baby home). I wanted to choose something that would help her interact with her new brother in a safe way and something that she could play with independently in case the hospital got “boring.” This doctor’s kit was the perfect choice. It tied into the hospital setting and gave Jenna a way to play with her brother. She could also use it independently with her stuffed animals. It is still a pivotal toy in our playroom and for both siblings.
We were going to give her this gift “from” her baby brother. This plan got changed suddenly when one of her friends told her that he had gotten a gift from his new baby, and Jenna was incensed: babies can’t give gifts (she loved reading big sister books, which emphasized that babies can’t do certain things). We adjusted, and the gift ended up being from “Mom and Dad” to congratulate Jenna on becoming a big sister. It worked just as well if not better for her. Daniel Tiger also helped us out here in that Jenna was encouraged to bring her baby brother a present too: a drawn picture of how much she loves him. I hadn't thought about this idea before watching the show, but it really did help Jenna feel part of the baby's arrival.
Another piece of the hospital equation that we intentionally thought through was how I would greet my daughter. Being very attached to Mom and being, up until now, and only child, we were very concerned about any initial feelings of jealousy or concern. After polling several friends, we came up with this plan: I would leave the baby in the bassinet with my husband and meet Jenna in the hospital hallway. I would spend some time with her, hug her, and answer any questions before we would go into the room. We decided to do this meeting and introduction on discharge day so that she would not need to leave me or the baby at the hospital. Our philosophy was, once we’re a family, we stick together.
As far as meeting her brother, we were going to let her take the lead. We decided that we would offer to let her hold him, but we wouldn’t force it (even though we all wanted that perfect picture). We would offer to let her sing to him or play with him, but ultimately, we were going to let her lead that interaction.
In reality, it all went pretty much as we had hoped. The only piece that had to change was that I went into active labor a little quicker than expected in the middle of the night. Jenna had been told that her Grandad would be there with her while her brother was being born, but it ended up being very close neighbors instead. She was a little worried, but Grandad arrived within 30 minutes of her waking up, so it all worked in the end. The only other thing that was different in practice than in theory was that Jenna really didn’t need a lot of comforting from me in the hospital. She was excited to see me, not worried. And she was even more excited to see her brother. She gave me a hug but immediately wanted to meet the baby. It couldn’t have gone much more smoothly.
Ultimately, there is no right way to bring home a second baby. You know your first baby better than anyone else and are the absolute best judge of what your child needs when you bring your new baby home or introduce them to each other. It’s a precious time bringing a new life into the world, and it is only made sweeter by the fact that your older child is now part of it. Congratulations and enjoy!