Q: We want to have another baby, but aren’t sure when’s the right time to do that so our child isn’t jealous. I never got along well with my siblings, but my husband had a pretty great relationship with his two younger brothers. I’m not sure what the trick is, although when we’ve talked about how our parents handled things, it was different for each of us. We had very different age gaps between us and our siblings — for me, a little over two years between one sister and me, and three and a half years with the other. My husband was very close in age to his brothers, about 13 to 14 months between each one. Is that what makes the difference? We really want our kids to be friends forever, so any advice would be appreciated for timing and adjusting after the baby’s born.

A: A great question! Although you didn’t mention the age of your first child — it might be helpful to broaden the information to include different developmental stages. With the firstborn, new parents experience each new milestone with excitement, enjoying the discovery of their baby’s temperament, likes and dislikes, without having to share their time with another child.

Different ages will bring varying reactions. First of all, remember that your first child could have a bit of a shock being rudely nudged out of the center of her parents’ universe. Up until the second child arrives, she’s been your focus, believing all your love is fixated on her. So can you truly prepare a child for the moment her status changes from single to firstborn? Well, although you can’t get them ready for the full emotional impact, just as nothing fully prepares the parents, you certainly can help smooth the way for your child before and just after your next baby is born. Temperament and age, as well as how you support your firstborn, all play an important role in whether the transition goes well. 

Here are some age guidelines to follow before and after the birth, with some expectations of what your child might do, regardless of the amount of preparation. There will be some joys and some setbacks with your sibling spacing. With an infant (spacing about 10 to 18 months apart), she will likely not recall a time without a sibling. Although that’s an advantage for you, don’t mistake that for thinking you can ignore addressing the impending birth. Children of 12 months or so certainly know something’s “different.” Be sure to let them know, as what they grasp (their receptive language) develops before what they actually say (expressive language), so it’s possible they can understand. Keep your statements simple: “We’re going to have a baby.” With a child this young, you might still be nursing. If so, be sure to wean your first child at least a few months before the new baby comes along. Be sure any other changes, such as moving your child from a crib to a toddler or big bed, takes place a few months before the baby arrives, to ensure he doesn’t feel he’s being replaced. He’ll need time to adjust to a new sleeping arrangement before he has to adjust to a new sibling. Keep as much as you can the same — schedule and rituals — for your first child. Of course, some things will change; however, this isn’t a good time to enroll your firstborn in a baby class or have a sitter assume responsibility, unless only for a few hours. The benefits of this close baby gap: Any negative reaction your firstborn has will be short-lived, and they’re more likely to be playmates, making your life easier. The downside: diapers, toilet-teaching, and separation anxiety are all multiplied by two.

If the spacing is 18 to 36 months, your toddler will be more excited anticipating a new sibling. Being able to explain what to expect to your toddler will be helpful, and he might participate with some preparations, helping him feel involved and supported. That said, your firstborn is very attached to his mom at this stage, with jealousy and clinginess at their peak. Thus, there may be feelings of displacement when the second child arrives. Many parents prefer to wait until the second trimester, when miscarriage risk lessens, to share the news. However, I believe the earlier you tell your first child, the longer she has to adjust to the idea. There are many good books to ease coping with the baby’s arrival. Be sure to focus on the positive. Toddlers are old enough to hear: “This baby is so lucky to have such a great big brother as you!” Finally, with toddlers, it’s important to have a “dress rehearsal” of what your actual time away will look like. Let her know if she’ll be staying with relatives, or neighbors, and do a few dry runs for that. A tour of the hospital, birthing center, at least a month ahead, gives your child a picture of where you’ll be when the baby is born. Also, give her something special of yours to care for, sleep with, etc., while you’re gone. Expect regression, and indulge it with kindness. Sometimes, resuming an earlier stage, such as drinking from a bottle, or needing diapers, passes more quickly if there’s acceptance rather than resistance or frustration. The upside with this age gap: baby equipment will still be usable. The negatives: with a newborn and a toddler’s needs, expect to be exhausted.

Preschoolers will be more sophisticated in speaking about the changes. That doesn’t mean there won’t be jealousy, as this age can be more demanding of their parents, particularly mom. You can tell your preschooler whenever you feel ready. Then brace yourself for the questions, especially how did the baby get inside you. You can explain that he grew inside you before coming out, and now another baby is growing inside you, ultimately coming out. Usually, simple explanations are sufficient. This is a good age to include your child in some of the necessary decisions for the baby. Involve him in the choices that you can live with — such as: “Should we paint the baby’s room yellow or green?” or for the crib sheets: “Which do you prefer — the stars or bears?” Having a few treats for him to minimize jealousy when the baby gets gifts is helpful. The baby can also give him a gift when he arrives, to encourage some positive feelings from the start. Know that it’s normal for your preschooler to act like a baby some of the time. The positive with this age gap: only one child in diapers, and some time the older child is in preschool, allowing time alone with your newborn. The downside: many children no longer nap after 3, which could mean it’s tough to get a break.

If you wait until your firstborn is 5 or older, she will be able to express her feelings in words — both her excitement and her resentment! You could have a devoted helper or an inflexible, antagonistic rebel. Part of the formula is temperament and the amount of preparation and inclusion. My own children were spaced four years apart. We had discussed the baby with my daughter throughout the pregnancy, reading books and involving her in prenatal visits, as well as other preparations. We were fortunate that her excitement grew with her relatively seamless adjustment to her brother’s arrival. Her low-key temperament, as well as spending regular solo time with her, helped.

Ultimately, we never know how these siblings will accept and adjust to each other. Sadly, some brothers and sisters continue being contentious rivals throughout their adult lives. Yet, children will structure their own different relationships with each other, if we allow them, at different times over the years. The fiercest enemies can also grow into the most ardent friends. We can help ensure that legacy by communicating to all our children what each wants most — the reassurance that life’s most cherished gift — their parents’ unconditional love and acceptance — is assuredly theirs.