One of the most common questions we get from parents of toddlers is how to cope with the arrival of a new sibling. In this series, we have already offered some suggestions on how to prepare your little prince or princess in advance, and coming up we will give some general tips for preventing (or at least reducing) sibling conflicts in the long run. This is part 2: how to help your toddler adjust once baby arrives.
The arrival of a baby into any household inevitably means major upheavals and adjustments for everyone. This is especially true for a toddler who really can't possibly have any idea what to expect, no matter how well you have prepared him or her. Toddlers respond to this upheaval in different ways, but upsets, difficult behavior and behavioral regressions in areas such as sleep, potty use, eating and the like, are definitely to be expected. While it is unrealistic to think that you can totally avoid these set backs and challenges, it is certainly possible to help support your toddler through this major life adjustment, while encouraging a positive future relationship between siblings, and keeping life as calm as can be expected for you as you also adjust to life with this new addition to your family.
Below you will find our tips for helping your toddler adjust to life with a new baby:
1. Have the baby and the toddler exchange gifts. Wrap up a special gift to the toddler for the baby to bring home from the hospital. Help your toddler choose and wrap (and unwrap) a special gift for baby. (Handy tip: have some extra toddler gifts on hand in case visitors turn up with gifts for baby but not for toddler!)
2. Have realistic expectations and don’t compare to other children. Expect some kind of upset, regression, acting out or change of some kind in response to this major life change. Some children are fine in the beginning but have problems later when they realize the baby is staying, or once the baby starts to play with the toddler’s toys. Others struggle in the early days and relax once they see that you still love and care for them. Some kids will show resentment and even hostility towards the baby, while others may be very loving with baby but will express angers towards mum or just general acting out. Remember, each child is unique with their own personality and ability to cope with change and stress. How they react will also depend on their age and developmental level and the amount of dependence they still have on mum. Their level of stress will also reflect your level of stress, so take care of yourself!
3. Acknowledge and put into words the toddler’s feelings. It is normal for toddlers to feel both positive and negative things about this baby—we do as well. If you are experiencing tricky behavior you might say, “It seems like you are feeling sad right now, do you want a cuddle and a story?” or “it’s hard for you when you want me to do something and I am busy with the baby.“ Even pre-verbal toddlers understand more than they can express and will appreciate feeling understood. You are also modeling how to talk about feelings and teaching communication skills so that someday she will be able to do that instead of acting out. Don’t ever disregard your child’s feelings, even if they are unpleasant or inconvenient.
4. Deal with aggressive behavior towards the baby quickly and calmly, model gentle touching, and give a suitable alternative. Tell the child, “we need to be gentle with the baby because it can hurt her if you pull her arm or hit her head. If you need to pull on something you can pull on your wagon, (hit your toy, bang this pot, etc.) This is how we touch babies. This is how we touched you when you were a baby. Baby likes your soft touches.”
5. Don’t leave toddler alone with baby. Even toddlers who are happy with baby can try to “help” in dangerous ways. Supervise all interactions and be prepared for anything. The stakes are too high to take any chances. Invest in a comfortable baby carrier so you can keep baby safe and happy and still have your hands free to care for and play with your toddler.
6, Enlist the toddler’s help. Give special jobs to help with the baby during bath time, nappy time, getting baby dressed, baby massage, etc. Toddlers usually love to help out. If your toddler is not interested in helping with baby, however, don’t push it. You can find helpful jobs for him to do around the house, or help bring you a drink or snack. Be patient if your toddler’s help is not actually helpful. It is his desire to help that you want to encourage!
7. Try not to make everything about the baby. If you can’t go to the park now, don’t say it is because baby is napping. Come up with other reasons so that your toddler doesn’t have more cause to resent the baby as an inconvenience or feel you value the baby’s needs more than his. Sometimes you can (and will have to) make baby wait a bit while you are meeting the toddler’s needs. This is ok and will help the toddler know she isn’t second priority.
8. Make nursing/feeding time enjoyable for toddler. As you will spend a lot of time sitting and feeding the baby, you can make this special reading time with the older sibling, or have a basket of special toys, books, activities that only comes out during feedings.
9. Help toddler hold the baby. Use a nursing pillow or cushions to help the toddler hold the baby in her lap, and teach the toddler to support baby’s head. Pheromones that come from babies’ heads can actually encourage bonding. Oxytocin, which is the love hormone, is also released when people hold babies. Snuggling, kissing and holding now can help lead to love later. If you are holding and cuddling toddler at the same time, it can be a family love-fest!
My own toddler and her newborn sister
10. Boost his ego. Make your child feel proud and connected to the new baby by saying things like, "She smiles like that when you're around" or "She likes when you hold her hand." You can also make your older child feel good by having him show baby how he does things, such as put on his socks or brush his teeth. Baby will indeed adore and be fascinated by her older sibling, who will provide endless entertainment and stimulation for her as she grows.
11. Acknowledge that baby takes a lot of your time and attention. Don’t downplay the importance of the baby or deny that baby takes time away from your toddler. Point out that baby is so tiny he can’t do anything for himself, unlike the toddler who can do so many big kid things. Point out that you did all these same things for the toddler when she was a baby, and now she is big. Someday the baby will be big too.
12. Indulge toddler’s desire to be the baby again. It is normal for toddlers to “regress” to more babyish ways, and also normal for her to want to act like the baby or be cared for like the baby. Play along and baby your toddler to meet those needs and provide that reassurance that she is still loved and will always be your baby. Allowing baby play for fun can reduce regression in other aspects of life.
13. Encourage toddler to look after his own baby. Provide a doll or stuffed animal, and toddler size slings, prams, nappies or other baby gear. Toddlers mimic and model our behavior and they learn about the world through play. They may enjoy caring for, nursing, bathing and changing their own baby while you care for yours. Boys can learn a lot about being a father when they are allowed to mimic Daddy by engaging in nurturing role-play.
14. Let toddler tell the story. Make a simple picture book with photographs of your child or drawings by your child. Let him tell the story of when he was a baby and what it is like to have a new baby in the house.
15. Spend one-on-one time alone with each child every day (with each parent). Spend some time each day with just your toddler, even if it's only a few minutes of drawing or building with blocks. This time makes him feel special and reminds him that you're his mommy as well as the baby's. 10 minutes of child-led play during which the child leads and the parent cooperates, describes, and does whatever the child wishes will improve self-esteem and the toddler’s willingness to cooperate at other times in the day.
16. Be consistent and maintain normal limits and routines. Once you are home and settled with baby, try to maintain your toddler’s normal routines as much as possible, or establish new routines that are more sustainable. Routines, including familiar rules and limits, offer security, normalcy and a toddler’s sense that their world is still their world and is not out of control.
17. Avoid other major life changes for a while. Moving house, starting nursery, taking on a new child-minder and the like may be more change than a toddler with a new sibling can handle. Try to delay any other major changes until everyone has gotten used to life with a new sibling.
18. Love your toddler unconditionally and make sure she always knows it. Let your toddler know that you still love her just as much as ever, even if she has a hard time adjusting to life with baby. When a toddler acts out it is probably partly a test to see if you will still love her. Don’t withdraw your love with time-outs or punishments. Toddlers ALWAYS need unconditional love, but most especially when they are figuring out what it means to have a new sibling.
What have you found to be helpful in preparing your child or children for a new sibling? What was your experience when adding a new family member? What might you do differently if you had it to do over?
For more information and strategies for keeping life with your toddler as calm as possible during the challenging time, I teach a ToddlerCalming Workshop with lots of science-based, gentle parenting strategies that many families have found helpful.