QUESTION: Baby No. 3 is arriving in October. I have a daughter who will be 7 and a 4-year-old son. My son is very attached to me and, although I think the baby will be helpful in the long term, any tips you have for getting him ready for the baby would be helpful.
We have been making it clear (without referencing the baby) that, in the middle of the night, his dad is going to be getting him and that he’ll be helping with whatever activity (making oatmeal, changing clothes) that I usually do. When I’m not home, he allows his father to do all of this and more, but when I am home, he shows a very strong preference for me. As he puts it: “Mommy, you are my super best friend. Daddy is my best friend.”
ANSWER: I chuckled when I read, “I think the baby will be helpful in the long term.” We use many terms when it comes to having children, but “helpful” isn’t a popular one (especially in the first couple of years). But on to your worries: Your 4-year-old is very attached to you, and you are wondering how to prepare him for this change.
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The good news? Children are highly adaptable. People are generally built to weather and grow with lovely interruptions such as new baby siblings. The frustration of not having his mother to himself will be acute, but your son can work through this and become stronger. As for the bad news: There isn’t a lot you can do now to make your son be less attached.
Children grow and mature by belonging to their parents and caretakers and, for a 4-year-old, this belonging is quite literal. They need to be physically close to their caregivers and, although they love their independent and imaginative play, their attachment band snaps them back to their people when they are tired, worried, scared, hungry or threatened by something or someone else.
Four-year-olds don’t make good decisions, so staying close to their caretakers ensures they stay safe, physically and emotionally. This attachment is so strong that, if you try to get your son away from you, it will only activate this attachment even more.
When you say, “Daddy is going to do all of your activities with you,” it makes him hold on to you tighter. Four-year-olds don’t track time well, so hinting that he is going to be with his father more in the future will only panic your son, creating more neediness.
One of the biggest mistakes I see parents of young children make is thinking they can “logic” their way out of upcoming suffering. With older children, you might be able to plan, but younger children are emotional beings, and you cannot reason your way through these scenarios.
What are you supposed to do? First, trust that your good and loving relationship with your son will carry you through this rough transition. Remember: All he cares about is your connection. If you keep that as your North Star, this will be OK. Second, watch how much logic you are trying to use.
Find a book on development, and remind yourself what 4-year-olds are capable of (and what they are not). Third, write this on a note, and post it wherever your eyes may land: Children are meant to be frustrated, and they are meant to cry about what frustrates them.
At the end of the day, parents want things to be easy, with no suffering, no pain. I get it. But children grow resilient by suffering and having a loving adult by their side.
As you grow bigger and more tired, there will be times when Dad has to take the kids places without you. This will result in crying and neediness from your son, but as long as everyone is loved and comforted, he will get through it.
After the baby is born, you will not be able to physically do everything for and with your son, and your son will cry in frustration. This is OK, too; just love him and hug him through it. The alternative is either employing logic or catering to his every need, and those are both poor choices.
The person you need to work with is your spouse. The more the two of you can agree on who is doing what and when, the better the energy of the house. If you allow your son to separate you and call the shots, the frustration and confusion will build, leading everyone to have a bad time. This isn’t to say that you won’t give in sometimes, but the more you and your spouse can stick to a schedule, the more relaxed everything will feel. The more relaxed children feel, the more they mature.
Please focus on resting, growing your baby and enjoying your children. Schedule meetings with your spouse, and trust that your son will handle the change of the new baby.
Meghan Leahy is a parent coach and the author of “Parenting Outside the Lines” (Penguin Random House).