How to help your toddler adjust to a new baby
Bringing home a new baby can be really difficult for parents. And knowing how to help your toddler adjust to a new baby can sometimes be the most difficult part! When they become big brothers and sisters, toddlers and preschoolers can become jealous, regress developmentally, become more demanding and clingy, and act out aggressively towards baby, or even towards you! It can be both frustrating and heartbreaking for parents to witness this. You just want your precious babes to love each other and get along, right? And they will (eventually!). Your toddler just needs a little bit of extra help and support as they adjust to their new role. Trying to see things from your toddlers perspective might also help.
The new lover
A little over 9 years ago, I was about to become the mother of a newborn and a 17 month old. I was reading everything I could find on how to help a toddler adjust to a new baby. And I read something from Pinky McKay that spoke to me so strongly that I still think of it today. She asked parents to put themselves in their toddlers shoes. Imagine this: One day your partner announces that they’ll soon be bringing home a new lover. A friend for you. You are all going to live together now, and you’ll love each other SO much. Your partner assures you that they’ll still love you just as much and that nothing will change between the two of you.
Then the new lover arrives. You have to share your partner with this new lover who you don’t know. You have to treat them with kindness, share your belongings with them, and love them always because they are part of your family now. But when you try to help, your partner gets angry with you. Tells you you’re being too rough.They keep telling you lucky you are to have someone to play with now. But there is no playing happening. Your partner spends a large amount of time with the new lover, because they need help settling in. You are expected to spend more time alone, and everything does feel different now, despite assurances that nothing would change.
How might you feel in this scenario? Resentful? Jealous? Insecure? Angry with your partner? Do you think it may cause you to question your entire relationship with your partner, and their love for you? This is exactly what your child is experiencing when you bring home their new baby sibling. It’s not fun for them. In fact, it’s probably the most difficult thing they’ve ever had to deal with in their short lives. But you CAN find ways to support your toddler through this transition feeling loved and included, while also laying the foundations for a strong and healthy sibling relationship.
8 tips to help your toddler adjust to a new baby:
1. It’s not the baby’s fault
Avoid using the baby as an excuse for not being able to do things. For example, “We can’t go to the park because baby needs a nap”, “We have to leave the park now because baby is crying”, “I can’t pick you up because I’m holding the baby”. This will only remind your toddler of all the things they are missing out on now that baby is here, and may cause resentment and anger towards baby. Instead, take the focus off the baby and try more general phrases like, “My hands are busy right now”, or “We’ll go to the park after lunch.”
2. Schedule in Special Time
Special time is time just for you and your toddler. It is focused and intentional, and your toddler leads the way. Try to make special time for your toddler each day, even if it’s just for 10 minutes at a time. Let them choose the activity, put away all distractions, and just focus on being with your child during that time. Make it clear that you really want to spend this time with them, and that you enjoy their company.
3. Keep your toddler occupied
Problems often occur when you sit down to feed the baby, and you’re unable to focus on your older child. Since babies get fed so frequently in the early days, your toddler might feel like they spend their whole day waiting for you to finish feeding baby! Try making baby’s feeds a quiet time for snuggling, reading a book with your toddler or watching a special show together on the couch. You may even like to put together a special box full of fun activities your toddler can do while they sit nearby. Ensure this box only comes out during feeding times so that it remains exciting, and switch out items frequently to keep your toddler interested. You could include colouring or craft supplies, playdough, stickers and stamps, activity books, puzzles, or a few special toys and teddies that your child loves.
4. Create a baby free zone
Set up a space for your toddler that is just for them, that the baby is not able to get to. Your child can take themselevs to this space when they need a break and they can keep their treasured items there too. Often when baby becomes mobile, toddlers will become very distressed by the invasion of their space. And since toddlers are still learning how to share, they may not react well to their younger sibling exploring their special toys. We all need our own space sometimes, and a baby free zone may limit some aggression and acting out during this transition period.
5. Accept all feelings
Give your toddler permission to talk about how they feel. It’s ok if they say they don’t like having a sibling. It’s ok for them to express anger and jealousy. It’s even ok for them to say they hate their younger sibling and wish they were never born. Remember, their whole word has been turned upside down by this screaming little bundle, and your toddler is still learning to exporess themselves. Rather than focusing on the words they are saying, focus on the feelings underneath. Acknowledge how they feel by saying something like, “Being a big sister/brother is so hard sometimes” or, “You really wish things could go back to the way they were.”
Resist the temptation to add a “but” to the end of those sentences, and simply listen to your child. Feeling heard and understood will allow them to process and move through their feelings. If you need some extra help teaching your child to identify and understand emotions, be sure to check out the Mindful Little Feelings Bundle in the shop.
6. Read Books
Read lots of books about being a big brother or sister as well as books about emotions. Stories help children to process and understand significant events in their lives. It helps them make sense of the world and to understand their own feelings and experiences too. Using books to teach your toddler appropriate ways to express and deal with frustration and anger will help avoid some of the lashing out you may otherwise see.
7. Pay attention to triggers
Prevention is always the best cure. Notice if there are times your toddler becomes particularly aggressive with the baby and put strategies in place to stop it before it happens. For example, does the toddler lash out while you’re busy cooking dinner and baby is sitting in the bouncer? Does your toddler bite the baby when she gets excited? Is baby getting hurt when your toddler is trying to play peekaboo? Babies and toddlers need lots of supervision when they are together. Staying close by and alert, or keeping baby out of reach of your toddler when you can’t be close, will prevent a lot of aggression. It will also prevent you from having to snatch baby away quickly from an overexcited toddler, or repeatedly telling your toddler no – which will only add to the aggression, not reduce it!
8. Create realistic expectations
So often, excited parents talk to their toddlers about all the fun they’re going to have with their new sibling. They tell toddlers about how they will play together and be the best of friends. It’s well intentioned. But imagine the bitter disappointment your toddler will feel when their new sibling arrives and all it does is sleep, poop and cry! That’s not much fun for your toddler at all. Be realistic with your older child about what to expect. Explain that the new baby will sleep a lot and need lots of care when they are brand new. Let your toddler know how they can be involved in baby’s care. Can they help you bathe baby? Cuddle baby? Pat baby to sleep? Help them feel part of the team by involving them in age appropriate ways.
Above all, try to remember that this is a stressful time for your older child. If you are dealing with challenging behaviours from your toddler, like aggression, meltdowns or regression, keep in mind that this is not intentional or malicious. This is stress behaviour and your child is doing the best they can. The best thing you can do to help your toddler adjust to the new baby, is to focus on reducing their stress. Keep things as calm and consistent as possible and express to your child through your words and actions that you love and accept them no matter what. Do this, and you will all come out the other side (relatively) unscathed. You might even witness the beginnings of a beautiful sibling relationship.
Need more help with sibling relationships? Try the blog posts below:
Sarah is a psychologist, mama of 4 and the creator of Mindful Little Minds. She has over 10 years of experience working with children, adolescents and families experiencing mental health problems and has a special interest in anxiety disorders in children. In her spare time she enjoys hugging her kids, drinking coffee, and telling anyone who’ll listen how tired she is.
Another thing you can do is, at least occasionally, tell the new family or household member, “I’ll help you in a few minutes, I have to help Matt get ready for baseball practice,” or, “I’m fixing Alex a snack, I’ll get to you when I’m done,” or, “I can’t get to you right now, I’m helping Sarah with her homework.” Think of how you would feel if your parents or guardians were constantly telling you things like, “I have to take Lucky out to use the bathroom, I’ll help you when I’m done,”, “I can’t help you right now, because I have to give the dog a bath,” “I’ll get to you in a minute, I’m changing baby Kyle’s diaper,” or, I have to feed baby Maddie.” You might feel more like a “second choice,” or an “appendage,” than a valued member of the family or household. The reason I say “new family or household member,” instead of “new baby,” is because the new family or household may not be a sibling, but rather, a cousin, friend, foster sibling, pet, etc. Also, in the case of adoption, the new family or household member might be an older sibling, instead of a younger sibling.
When the new family or household member arrives, your child may say things like, “my family/household is my parents/guardians and me,” or, “when I grow up, I’m only going to have one kid.” If your child does say things like this, try to avoid acting all hurt, or saying things like, “what about David,” “how would you feel if Chloe said that,” or, “what if your partner wants two kids?” Instead, think about this. How would you feel if you had your parents’ or guardians’ full attention, and then along came another family or household member? How would you feel if everything now had to revolve around that new family or household member and their feedings, nap time, bathroom outings, homework, activities, etc. How would you feel if all family or household outings, vacations, or other family or household activities now had to be something your new family or household member could do, even if you felt that you had outgrown most of them? How would you feel if you now had to go to certain areas of the home or property to play with certain ‘big kid’ toys (or worse, you weren’t allowed to have such toys on the premises at all), because they might harm your new family or household member, or because the new family or household member might try to take or destroy them? You can try saying things like, “I know, it’s hard getting used to a new family or household member, because you are so used to all of the attention being on you.”
Even if your child doesn’t seem to mind the new family or household member at first, issues may arise if the new family or household member starts getting into your child’s things, following your child around, getting their way more often, or getting away with things that would earn your child a good talking to (or would have when they were younger). How would you feel if your kids were getting into your things, and your partner talked to you about sharing with your kids, but didn’t talk to the kids about asking you before using your things? How would you feel if your kids wouldn’t stop following you around, and your partner explained, “it’s because they love you,” rather than talking to your kids about respecting your personal space? How would you feel if you and your family were on a road trip and you wanted to stop at Panera Bread, but your kids said, “no, we want pizza, not a salad, soup, or sandwich” so your partner pulled right into a pizza place, but didn’t stop at Panera, because he/she wasn’t willing to make two stops? How would you feel if your partner let the kids off easy for their behavior, but reprimanded you for similar infractions, simply because, “they are younger than you, and they don’t know any better,” or because, “they look up to you, so you have to set a good example?”
Great points! Thanks so much for sharing your insights Leanne 🙂