Anything you can do while you're pregnant to prepare your child will be helpful. Your goal is to get her excited about the baby, and feeling connected to it, even before it is born. There is a whole article about how to prepare your child for the birth of the new baby on this website.
During the birth, you'll want to make sure your older child doesn't feel abandoned. Having mom vanish to the hospital is often traumatic for little ones, and makes it more difficult for them to welcome the new baby when mom finally shows up with him. Here's an article that should be helpful as you think through how to prepare your little one for the separation while you birth the new baby: Preparing Your Child for the Separation While You Birth the New Baby.
But, of course, your child will at some point be faced with the reality that he or she now has a sibling -- or more to the point, you now have a new baby on your lap. Nothing can really prepare them for this reality. Think of the worst break up you ever had and magnify that by a factor of 1000. So despite all your wonderful prep, you will still find yourself facing the million dollar question:
What do you do to minimize sibling rivalry -- and your older child's natural panic reaction -- once the baby is born?
1. Have dad carry the baby in the door.
Mom goes straight to the older child. Scoop him or her up into your arms, and do a lot of adoring hugging and kissing. Don't make this about the new baby yet. It's about your reunion with your darling older child (or children.)
(This presumes that Mom is the most favored source of comfort in the hierarchy of attachment. If Dad is, then Mom carries the new baby in while Dad does the hugging.)
2. Make your child the hero in the eyes of the baby (and in her own eyes.)
When you get a quiet moment with your older child, call her over to snuggle with you and the baby. (Make sure any other kids are occupied elsewhere; you should do this with each child separately.) Tell the baby that you want to introduce Big Sister, who is a wonderful girl that you hope Baby will aspire to be like. List all the wonderful things you love about Big Sister, that Baby will get to know.
3. Better living through bonding:
Then let Big Sister sit and hold the baby, helping her to support his head. Bonding experts say that babies' heads give off pheromones, and when we inhale them, we fall in love, and begin to feel protective. The more your older child snuggles the new sib, the better their relationship is likely to be.
4. Make sure each of your kids knows they still have an important role in the family.
Reinforce all the wonderful things about who they are and how they contribute to the family. "Jess, I love the way you help me like this," or "Sara, I love the way you make me laugh," which note specific contributions, help your child develop a sense of why she's still a valuable member of the family. Talk often about the fact that each member of the family is important in their own way and makes their own special contribution. The family needs each person for it to be whole.
5. Naturally your child will be testing you to be sure you still love her.
Keep your relationship with her as smooth and affectionate as possible, sidestepping power struggles and minimizing conflicts. But keep your usual limits, which will help her feel secure. (By limits, I don't mean punishment, which always backfires. Set limits, like bedtime or no hitting, and enforce them with empathy.)
6. This is not the time for asking your older child to be a big kid.
Delay potty training, making her give up her bottle or pacifier, etc. If she wakes up more often for your reassurance at night, and you can't go to her because of the baby, make sure Dad comforts her and parents her back to sleep. Expect regression. Let her be a baby as much as she wants to be without shame or guilt. Give her lots of extra love and attention.
7. Keep your kids' routines the same as they were before the baby as much as possible.
This will provide a buffer against the stress of so much change and insecurity.
8. Never leave a toddler or preschooler unsupervised with the baby.
Little ones cannot be expected to control those jealous emotions and the stakes are just too high to take a chance. Supervise closely. Try to avoid admonishing your child. If you notice him getting rough, quickly move the baby away from him. If you can, invite him to roughhouse with you a little bit: "That's a little wild for the baby. She isn't big like you. She can't handle wild play yet. But you and I can have fun together! I think I know what will make you laugh!" If you can't roughhouse at that moment, make a note to do it later to get your child laughing, which will ease his tensions. Then, distract him with a question, song or story.
9. Don't make everything about the baby.
Keep your cooing over the baby for private times. Instead of saying you're waiting for the baby to wake up before you can go out to play, say you're waiting for the laundry to finish, or the casserole to bake, or for a phone call. Instead of "When I'm done with the baby I'll help you," say "I'll be there as soon as my hands are free."
10. Read your child books on siblings with new babies.
Use these as a springboard to make observations about your child's feelings. Your goal is to give your child words for her feelings, because that helps her manage them rather than having to act them out. Encourage bonding, but allow all the negative feelings too. Be direct: "I know it's hard to have me busy with the baby when you want me." Commiserate: "Babies sure take a lot of time, don't they!" Here's a list of great books for big sibs to help with adjusting to life with the new baby.
11. Encourage empathy.
Research shows that when parents encourage the older siblings to see the baby as a real person, with feelings of his own, the siblings are more affectionate and protective with the baby. So you might say things like:
"My, he loves it when you sing to him!"
"Look how he's trying to move his mouth like yours -- he is trying to be like you!"
"I wonder if the baby recognizes Grandma yet?"
"I think the dog barking scared him."
"I wonder whether the baby likes this music?"
12. Stay connected to your older child.
Spend as much positive alone-time as possible every single day with each child. When there's another adult around, let them hold the baby while you snuggle with your toddler and/or preschooler. If your hands are busy, use your voice to stay connected with your older children. When you sit down to feed the baby, invite your older kids over for a read-a-thon. They will look forward to those times.
13. Expect grief.
Your older child needs to grieve what he's lost: his exclusive relationship with you. His status as the only child. Your concentrated time and attention. Remember, think of the worst romantic breakup you've ever had and multiply by 1000. If he's whiny and cranky, reframe the way you see him. Your child is in pain. He is mourning. He can't put into words what he is unhappy about, and he isn't upset for the reason he thinks. But he needs your help to heal. So when he acts like needy or whiny, hold him and empathize:
"Seems like you feel so sad right now. Seems like you hurt inside. You know Mommy loves you soooo much. Mommy is always here for a hug if you feel sad. Come snuggle with me while I feed the baby. Let's read your favorite books."
Allow him to cry in your arms as much as he wants. Then help him find a way to feel better. Let him see that while he can't always have what he wants, he can get something that is in some ways even better: A mother who understands and sympathizes, who accepts all of him, and who helps him to feel better. No matter what.