What a Young Child Understands: Waiting for the Birth of a Baby
written by Carol Castanon, Parent Consultant
What do young children hear when adults talk about the new baby that’s coming? How does a toddler or young child understand the baby inside Mommy’s belly? What are tots and young children asking, what do they need, and how do they feel?
When families are expecting a new baby there are extraordinary emotions impacting adults, children and the family system. The adult is necessarily deeply affected by the child and the child by the adult. This is a marriage of deep emotional experience. Each individual’s emotion is felt by the other. It’s through feeling that we understand the brevity of an experience or the delight.
Let’s begin talking about the new baby waiting to be born. The one year old, still a baby, is not yet able to developmentally conceptualize the hidden. You may say there is a baby inside Mommy growing. The child may take this information very matter of factually. OK, there is a baby, but this baby is unlike all other babes. This baby is an “inside Mommy” baby. This is the whole of what this child knows. A young and old tot knows Mommy might be tired or sick or going to the doctor/midwife. The young tot knows Mommy’s lap is getting smaller. What this toddler, or perhaps young child, really knows is how things between “Mommy and me” are changing. This toddler is experiencing a shift in attention, energy, or capacity. This is neither good nor bad. It is an observation! Toddlers are very good at telling their grown-up how they feel in this “new baby coming” territory. But, these conversations may not be with words.
So there is a dilemma for the parent. There is a deep crevice between what information the parent might provide and what the child understands. Or the child may understand Mommy is tired, or Daddy or Auntie helps me more but, the feelings of this change within family might be communicated with tears, loud voices, or tantrums. This child may feel curiosity or maybe even compassion for Mommy, but they may also long for the relationship that they’ve come to know and love. Some toddlers or young children are quite adaptable to the new family order, while others struggle to understand. The three to five year old child, whose language is developed and who is no longer a baby, might understand complex information, but they are young nonetheless. The three to five year old is eager for you to sustain delight in them the way you did when they were babies. The three to five year old might yearn for their babyhood or at least really like to remember it! This child may not, probably will not, understand time. This child along with the toddler is all about now and next. Today there is no baby being born or today the baby will be born. Due dates are not understood by young children. Toddlers and the very young are developmentally creatures of now!
As your child approaches five, approach what they understand with inquiry. The parent of a five year old might be very surprised by what is understood. Five year olds are infamous for getting part of the story right and not the other. Five year olds often think they are now big enough to have jobs and houses. Asking questions is a great way for parents to gauge their child’s cognitive growth. But alas, even what’s understood is not easily accepted! What is felt, what is understood and what is needed hangs precariously in each and every relationship! Some days are hard and some days are happy, usually there is a little of both every day.
For the child expecting their first sibling there might be sheer delight. But this child does not know the experience of the newborn. This is a journey that will unfold. The older sibling will learn to wait for their grown-up and share their grown-up in time. This is a doing/learning experience. Remember the surprises you had with your first baby?
Children need and seek time with their parent. Time and full attention (without multi-tasking) equals connection. Connection builds trust and resiliency. So as a child is waiting for the new baby, or waiting because there is a new baby, spend precious moments in connection with your child. That will absolutely be felt and understood.