Many women worry about leaving their older child when they go to the hospital to give birth to their baby. It doesn't help that labor is by definition unpredictable in both timing and length, making it even harder to prepare a child who is often little more than a baby himself.
It is, of course, possible for the older child to say with his dad, rather than being left with a friend or relative. But we also know that labor advances faster when women have support from a loved one, so most of the time a woman's partner stays with her during labor and the older child is left in someone else's care.
How do we prepare our older baby, toddler or preschooler for this separation from mom, and maybe even from home?
Create a strong relationship now. Your little one might well have a hard time during your absence from her. But a close relationship with you will give her a strong foundation, and provide the buffer she needs to recover quickly.
Pick the person who will take care of your little one while you are having the baby, and start working with that person to prepare your child. Leave him with that person as often as possible, for short and longer periods of time. Try to arrange, after months of this, for your child to nap there in order to get comfortable falling asleep, but sleepovers are probably not worth the potential trauma. If the birth requires a sleepover, so be it because it's unavoidable, but that one night should be the only night unless the child is completely comfortable with this person.
Don't try to get your child used to separation in general by leaving her with other people frequently. That will just traumatize her. The goal is not to help her get used to separation and being with random people, because that is not how attachment works. The goal is to help her build a relationship with your designated person, whoever it will be, so that person can calm her during your absence. The only thing that will help her cope with your absence is the presence of someone she trusts.
Your goal is to help your designated person to learn to calm your child. It's ok if your little one cries. What matters is that he has someone to comfort him while he cries, who won't just leave him to cry himself to sleep. Kids can make it through anything if they have someone to give them love and empathy.
You should also start preparing your little one by talking about how you will go to the hospital to have the baby and she will go to (the neighbor? grandma?) but you will come to pick her up and take her home soon. You should stress that you ALWAYS come back to her. Make it a little mantra: "And then Mommy will come and scoop you up because Mommy ALWAYS comes back!"
You could try making a book for him.
Page 1: A picture of you and Max (or whatever your darling's name is). The words: Mommy LOVES Max.
Page 2: Mommy is having a baby. Mommy goes to the hospital to have the baby. (picture of pregnant Mommy)
Page 3: Max goes to stay with ________ while Mommy has the baby. (picture of Max and ______)
Page 4: Max misses Mommy but _____ loves Max and tells him that Mommy will be home soon. (picture of Max looking sad, and another of Max being held by ______)
Page 5: Mommy comes back! Mommy always comes back! (picture: Mommy hugging Max) >Your little one may not have a lot of words yet, but probably understands a lot. Reading a book like this that you make for him will be helpful to him.
Help your little one bond with a stuffed animal or lovey or a clothing item of yours, preferably smelling like you. Let the person who will take care of her during your labor use this comfort object to help her when she's upset.
Stay positive and have confidence in your child. Your little one will weather this -- even if, heaven forbid, he cries himself to sleep in the arms of his caregiver. Your love and attention before and after will make all the difference in the world to his being able to handle the challenge.
Dr. Laura Markham