Two-year-old Hannah wasn’t sure that she wanted to be a big sister. Before Abby’s arrival, her parents had talked casually about the little baby brother or sister to come. Hannah — a very talkative toddler — was unusually quiet about the whole thing. If someone asked her about the new baby, Hannah would quickly say, “No new baby.”
The truth is Hannah’s mom, Tara Chapman*, was a little apprehensive too. Hannah had always been a handful, with boundless energy and a very physical way of showing her emotions. If she didn’t take to new sisterhood, Chapman knew it would be a rocky road ahead.
When Abby came home from the hospital, Hannah watched the baby curiously for a few days. Finally, she made up her mind: “I no like that new baby,” she announced firmly.
The introduction of a new baby to the family can be an emotional — and anxious — time for parents, who worry that their first child’s displacement as the one-and-only will throw the family off-kilter. But should parents really be worried?
Not at all, experts say. Jealousy of a new sibling is a very common and natural reaction from older children. But they soon adjust. In fact, there’s a silver lining: When parents address their child’s negative feelings in an understanding and sympathetic manner, it can pave the way for a stronger sibling relationship.
Breaking the news Alyson Schafer, a psychotherapist and author of Honey, I Wrecked the Kids, suggests that parents set the tone for the rest of the family by being excited and positive about the new baby. The key, Schafer stresses, is that parents not overdo it and make the new arrival the sole focus of the family.
Patricia Henderson Shimm, an early childhood educator and author of Parenting Your Toddler, agrees. In her book, she suggests keeping the announcement of your big news simple and low-key: “We are going to have a new baby in the summer, when it gets very hot.” Follow your toddler’s lead by answering her questions, but don’t overload her with information.
Winnipeg mom of two Ange Schellenberg had a unique way to help her 19-month-old son, Xander, grasp the idea that he was going to be a big brother. When she found out her second baby was on the way, Schellenberg bought a baby doll named Mikey for her son.
“For months, we would go and wake Mikey up from his bed, feed him a bottle and change his diaper,” she explains. Mikey quickly became a beloved part of the family, going everywhere with Xander. “Once our new baby boy arrived, Xander was so excited that I would have a baby to take care of, just like he took care of Mikey.”
As the birth gets close, you can help your toddler understand what’s happening by teaching him a bit about babies. You can read picture books about babies, visit friends who have younger siblings, and look at his own baby book together, talking about how tiny and helpless he was.
Some parents purchase a present for the older child, to be given “from” the baby when she is born. Others keep a stash of small surprises on hand for the older child in the event friends drop by with gifts for the newborn.
Coming up: Tips to help your toddler adjust
Early days For toddlers, the reality of life with a new baby doesn’t sink in until the baby is home. During this transition, Schafer reminds parents that their older children are still babies themselves, who need a lot of care and attention. “Don’t push your toddler to grow up,” writes Shimm. “This is not the time to try to get her off bottles, out of diapers or into a bed.”
While Hannah was toilet trained by the time baby Abby arrived, she still needed lots of help. Chapman remembers her frustration, during those early days of getting nursing established, when Hannah needed to go to the bathroom right after Abby got settled in to breastfeed. Hannah could go on her own, but then would scream (and scream and scream) for her mom to come and help — just as she always had before.
“I’d find myself getting upset, as if Hannah should have known it was an inconvenient time, as if she could just wait patiently on the toilet for five minutes until I was done,” Chapman says. “I had to remind myself that she wasn’t trying to manipulate me; she was just a little girl who needed her mom’s help.” Chapman found a good solution: She got the portable potty back out and put it on the floor beside her when she was nursing, so she could help Hannah easily.
The challenge for parents is to care for the newborn while reassuring the toddler she is still cherished and important to the family. Individual time with you — even a half-hour at the park or sitting down with crayons or stickers — will help her understand she hasn’t lost your love.
“We tried very hard to have one-on-one time with Hannah,” says Chapman. “It became her ‘big job’ to go grocery shopping with her dad. She loved helping to choose the cereal and put things on the conveyor belt; they always had a great time.”
Chapman also counts herself lucky: “Our family and friends showered Hannah with attention when they came over. It was a huge help to us.”
Despite her new-mom exhaustion, Chapman tried to use the baby’s nap time to play with Hannah, understanding her “big girl” craved a chance to have her mom to herself. Mostly, you’ll be caring for both children together, but Schafer says you can still create special moments for the older child. If you’re nursing the baby, cuddle up on the couch together and read from a special basket of books.
Schellenberg made an effort to include her young son as much as possible when the baby was born. “We always invited our toddler to help bath his new baby brother. Did it take twice as long? Yes. Was there water everywhere? Yes. Was my son happy that he was helping? Yes. The look of pride on his face was well worth it.”
“But I’m a baby too!” His baby brother was born two weeks ago and, suddenly, your fiercely independent two-year-old is begging to be carried and demanding a bedtime bottle.
Shimm’s advice: “Go with the flow. You’re not going to destroy your toddler’s development by letting him have a bottle once in a while.” Regression (and other behavioural upsets, such as trouble sleeping or temper tantrums) is how toddlers respond when they’re feeling confused or anxious. Big changes like starting daycare or welcoming a new baby are unsettling for little people!
There’s a logic to baby-like behaviour as well: The baby receives lots of attention; therefore, to get more attention, act like a baby. “Don’t fuss or overreact to the behaviour,” advises Nina Howe, a professor in the Faculty of Education at Concordia University in Montreal, explaining that if parents reassure their child and address the behaviour in a matter-of-fact way, playing “baby” will become less and less appealing and the phase should pass quickly.
Another good strategy, says Schafer, is to emphasize the positive side of the child’s big-kid capabilities and provide feedback (“Look, you did that all by yourself!”). You can also point out, says Shimm, the privileges of being older (“Babies can’t have ice cream — that’s just for big kids”).
The green-eyed monster Chapman recalls that it didn’t take long for Hannah to figure out that the baby took her mom’s attention away from her. “She’d get upset when Abby woke from a nap. Hannah would pull my arms and yell, ‘No! Baby still sleeping!’” “Many children are initially excited, and then reality begins to dawn,” says Howe, explaining that reacting negatively to the baby is a natural response for children.
It’s important to acknowledge how the older child feels. Rather than say, “Don’t be jealous,” Schafer suggests validating the child’s feelings: “It must be hard to have a little brother who takes up so much of our time.” Then reassure the child: “I love you and that will never change, no matter what.”
Since toddlers don’t fully understand their own feelings, and may not be able to put them into words (certainly not diplomatic words!), Shimm says parents can help clarify the toddler’s feelings, adding a bit of adult perspective: “When your toddler screams, ‘I hate you’ at the baby, lightly say: ‘Sometimes you like your sister, sometimes you don’t.’”
Similarly, you can comment sympathetically on the triggering incident: “I know it’s hard to wait while I get the baby ready.” Be careful, adds Schafer, about inadvertently “blaming” the baby. Instead of “Shh! The baby is sleeping!” try: “It’s quiet time now. Let’s use our quiet voices.”
Parents naturally want their children to love each other, so it’s distressing when an older child is resentful of the baby. But Howe reminds parents that expecting a child to love the new baby immediately is unrealistic because, like all relationships, the bond takes time to develop.
A pinch to grow an inch “Hannah could not keep her hands off of Abby. It was the single hardest issue in my first year of having two kids,” says Chapman. “She wanted to touch her constantly and couldn’t do it in a gentle way. Twice she was kissing the baby’s fingers, and then bit her. I felt like I could not turn my back on them for a second — not even to grab the phone — without something happening.”
While very upsetting to parents, it’s common for toddlers to pinch, slap or bite the new baby. Toddlers are physical, impulsive creatures and their strong feelings often get the better of them. Younger toddlers may also hurt the baby quite innocently, exploring them the way they would a toy.
It’s natural to be angry when your older child deliberately hurts the baby. However, overreacting can reinforce the behaviour instead of discouraging it. Try to stay in control of your emotions and firmly but calmly remove the toddler, reminding her that hurting the baby is not allowed. For verbal toddlers, you might say, “If you’re angry at the baby, come and tell me, and I will help you.”
But the bottom line is that just telling a toddler to stop any behaviour rarely works. Toddlers should always be supervised with babies, and those prone to hitting more so.
It’s easy to get caught up in a negative spiral of only noticing your child’s hurtful behaviour. Toddlers thrive on our approval, so try to catch them being good. In Siblings Without Rivalry, authors Adele Faber and Elaine Mazlish emphasize the importance of giving positive attention when kids behave well. Look for opportunities to say things like “That was a lovely gentle pat. Sarah likes that” or “Thanks for singing to the baby. That was a big help.”
The silver lining Whether the transition to “big sibling” is easy like Xander’s or bumpy like Hannah’s, it won’t be long until this new family you’ve created feels just right — to your child as well as you. Besides, children learn important life skills like co-operation, patience and empathy from dealing with one another. Who knows? They might even end up being the best of friends!
A book to help prepare your child for a new sibling If your toddler is expecting a little sibling in the near future, check out There's Going to be a Baby by John Burningham and Helen Oxenbury, Candlewick 2010, $20. This sweet story explores the wishes (and worries) of the older child.
* Names changed by request.
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