Many women worry about leaving their older child if they go to the hospital to give birth to their baby. It doesn’t help that labor is 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, often possible for the child to stay with his other parent, 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?

1. Create a strong relationship now.

Your little one might have a hard time during your absence. But a close relationship with you will give her a strong foundation, and provide the buffer she needs to recover quickly.

2. 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. If your child does well napping, consider a sleepover—but don’t push it.

If your child isn’t ready, it isn’t 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.

3. Don’t try to get your child used to separation in general by leaving her with other people frequently.

That will just traumatize her and make her clingy. 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.

4. Your goal is to help your designated person learn to calm your child.

It's okay 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.

5. Start preparing your little one by talking.

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!”

6. Make a book for him.

Since the separation from you when the baby is born can set the tone for the sibling's arrival, you might want to create a book that focuses just on the pregnancy and separation. To make it easier for you to create your own personalized book with words and the picture choices to fit your needs.

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 help him understand much more.

7. Help your little one develop some feeling of being comforted by a stuffed animal or lovey or a clothing item of yours...preferably smelling like you.

No object will ever substitute for a person, but children can find comfort in a familiar object they associate with safety and with parents. Let the person who will care for your child during your labor use this comfort object to help your child when she's upset.

8. 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.

If you’re planning to have your child at the birth:

Many parents who had an uneventful first delivery are excited about the idea of including their older child in the magical moment of birth. Given the unpredictability of the birth process, this is only desirable if you’ve arranged for a relative—someone your child is close to—to be with you during labor and to whisk your child away if the birth gets complicated or he gets bored.

My own four-year-old son came to the birth center with us and built a new lego while I labored, and was present for his sister’s birth (up near my head, holding my hand.) He loved being present when his baby sister was "created," and has always been very protective of her.

If you decide to go this route, be sure you prepare your child.

  • Read lots of birth books together.
  • Watch birth videos that are appropriate for children; see if you can rent "Gentle Birth Choices" or "Birth Day" from your local library to watch with your child. Her reaction can be a useful indicator as to whether she's ready to attend the actual birth.
  • Let him help you push a large piece of furniture across the room. Point out that making loud noises, straining and sweating helps you work harder, and that labor is even more work.
  • Explain in detail what will happen. It's important that your child know what to expect, including that the cord bleeds when it's cut, and that it doesn't hurt baby.
  • Prepare your child for the way the baby will look. Newborns famously look red, pinched, wizened.