It’s hard to know how your toddler will react to a new sibling, but helping them prepare for the impending arrival is one of the best investments in time you can make.
The idea isn’t to flood your toddler with constant talk of the new baby – that’s an abstract concept and they may lose interest if you overwhelm them.
They need information they can interpret. Otherwise they end up very disappointed with a baby who can’t throw or catch a ball and who takes much more of mummy’s time than is reasonable.
Here are some things that can help your toddler enjoy your new family member.
When you discover you’re pregnant (again!!), telling your toddler too early can make the whole process feel like forever. But if you don’t tell your toddler… You know they’re very astute, and you know they know a lot more than you tell them.
Some toddlers have been exposed to new babies with cousins or friends. Others will have little or no understanding of what a new baby ‘on the way’ means.
Some parents visit friends who have babies to announce the news to their toddler because this may help the toddler develop a more realistic understanding of the new-baby concept.
As you start to get ready for the new arrival, it’s very important to be sensitive with any changes affecting your toddler. If you need to rearrange their room, explain it in a way that makes sense to them – e.g. ‘You’re growing bigger,’ instead of ‘You need to make room for the baby’.
Decisions such as toilet training or child care are best organised before the new baby arrives, to ensure as much stability as possible after the birth.
Involve your toddler
As you prepare the house, don’t despair if they’re not interested in the idea of a sibling - it’s very hard for a toddler to imagine a baby joining the family. Try to find things that give your toddler a personal attachment:
- choosing a toy or something special for them to give the new baby
- asking for help to arrange books and toys for the baby.
Make every effort to refer to the new baby as ‘our baby’ rather than ‘my’ baby or ‘mummy’s baby’.
As the mum, if you have been the primary caregiver, arrange for your partner and other family or friends to have one-on-one time with your toddler. You’ll soon be very busy and it will be easier for everyone if your toddler is comfortable being looked after by others.
During the birth
If you plan to have someone stay at home with your toddler during the birth, organise for him or her to visit occasionally in the evening so your toddler isn’t surprised if they’re there one morning and you’re not.
If you’re going to the hospital, leave something for your toddler to look after until you see them next – it only needs to be something simple, like a book or piece of clothing, and will reinforce they’ll see you again soon.
You may decide to have your toddler with you for the delivery, but because toddlers aren’t always predictable, it’s wise to invite a support person who can care for your toddler. Your first-born might find the process overwhelming, or underwhelming and supremely boring.
Once baby is born
Again there's no right or wrong, but the aim is for you to create a toddler-inclusive experience and reduce the sense of displacement as much as possible.
Each toddler will react differently – they might want to cuddle their new sibling on day one and then become increasingly indignant. Or show no interest to start and then slowly care for their brother or sister more and more. Overtime, fascination or rejection will turn into learning and acceptance.
To help them along the journey, it is so important to include them as much as possible:
- Talk to your toddler about what it was like when they were born.
- When friends and family meet the baby, ask your toddler to do the introductions.
- Ask visitors to spend a moment with your toddler as well.
- If gifts arrive, explain that it’s baby’s birthday. Ask them to help by unwrapping the gift and showing it to baby.
- Factor in one-on-one time with your toddler, perhaps while the new babe is sleeping.
This connectedness and reassurance is critical while they adjust to the change in care you offer. Help them to feel special. Photos of them as a baby may be helpful in your discussions at this time.
Quality time with your toddler will help enormously as they adjust to the newcomer. These connections don’t have to be long or intense. In fact, it’s ideal for them to be short but frequent.
Try to offer them focused attention before they start demanding it. It will be easy to forget your toddler needs a ‘special cuddle’ while you’re so consumed with the tasks of early parenting again. Try some ideas like:
- spontaneously call your toddler over to tell them how great their drawing is
- get down to their level occasionally and whisper how lucky you feel to be their parent
- ask if they have time to spend a moment with you, and read a book together.
The key is staying connected. Although you’ll be exhausted, try to avoid constantly disciplining your child who is (understandably) looking for your attention. Kindness and understanding is the quickest path to your toddler adjusting to the new family dynamic.
Managing more than one kid
Toddlers are not masters of patience, so be prepared when you’re attending to your new baby. For example, before your settle in to feed baby, have a snack and drink ready, or a puzzle, a dress-up box, DVD or something else that helps your toddler feel like they’re not missing out.
If your toddler needs more involvement during feed times, be realistic about what you ask of them - it’s great to have a ‘helper’ but avoid leaving them alone with the baby.
- Encourage them to use a doll so they can mimic your behaviours and not feel left out.
- Create ‘special jobs’ to promote a sense of being important and valued:
- stroking baby’s head to help her calm
- choosing which leggings to wear today
- bringing a nappy when your hands are full.
- Perhaps your toddler can hold the book now while your read or turn the pages, all while you feed the baby.
Don’t be at all surprised if your toddler, who has not used nappies for months, suddenly needs them again. Or if they ask for a dummy they gave up a year ago. You might see regression in the form of baby talk or night waking.
All are completely normal, and as your toddler feels more accustomed to the changed family makeup, they’ll just move back to their regular developmental achievements.
Be kind and guide your child – discipline will only compound their insecurity. Just go with the flow and offer support and kindness as your child adjusts.
You can also help by trying to keep your patterns as predictable as possible, such as bedtime and meal rituals. You may need to offer a little extra one-on-one attention at bedtime for example, to reinforce your connections and bond with your toddler. Let them experience your emotional availability to help them through the fact your attention is often required elsewhere.
The perks of being older
Remind your toddler of their abilities and how they can run and jump and get whatever toy they want to play with, but the baby relies on someone else because they’re ‘not big enough’. Emphasise your toddler’s skills and unique opportunities such as playing in the park while the baby has to stay home.
Be creative and honest to give your toddler a sense of worth and pride. Helping them see themselves as capable will mean any regressed behaviour will slowly disappear.
Life for your new baby
It helps if you speak for your baby to help your toddler understand what’s happening. Use phrases like:
- ‘When she cries, it means she’s hungry. Babies can’t talk like us so she tells us with her sounds and cries.’
- ‘He is upset today, I think he’s trying to tell us he has a tummy ache.’
- ‘Wow she is a tired baby today. She seems grumpy, just like when we get tired!’
If you give meaning to the behaviour, it helps (everyone) remember that baby behaviour is communication and our job is to interpret it.
You’ll need to gently coach your toddler in touching, cuddling and being around the baby, modelling and supervising. Phrases such as ‘Wow look how gentle and kind you are as a big brother,’ or ‘Would you like to just stroke his head like this?’ are far more powerful than ‘Careful’ and ‘Mind the baby’.
Things to do together
Little activities that keep your toddler involved will make the day pass much more quickly. Try a picnic, in the backyard, on the balcony or even in the lounge room - a towel for a picnic rug and some fruit and drink make an instant picnic. Don’t go to too much fuss – keep things quick and simple.
Indoors you can read books, stack blocks or play with play-dough, all while your baby is either nearby or sleeping. When you need to prepare meals, give your toddler a plastic plate and something to prepare – keep it simple and everyone is happy.
Acknowledge their feelings
Talk about the range of new feelings everyone is experiencing, and see if your toddler wants to contribute.
Let them know that you’ve noticed how much time and attention the baby takes up and acknowledge that your toddler might be feeling left out.
Offer spontaneous cuddles so your toddler can benefit from the connectedness and not feel they have to develop behaviours to gain your attention.
Remember everything takes twice as long as you think it will, so be patient and you will avoid frustration.
This is a new time of great adjustment for every family member. Try to not be angry when your toddler gets it wrong. Instead, take opportunities to explain things and guide them to appropriate behaviours.
Author: Helen Stevens. RN. RM. MCHN. Manager of Clinical Services, Education and Research.
Parent Infant Consultants. 0411880720.