Introducing a new baby to the family can be a huge transition for everyone. With the sudden shift in family dynamics, parent’s attention, and the shake up to day to day life, it’s no wonder many older children struggle with feelings of insecurity, sadness, anger, frustration, confusion, hurt, and loss. And, for us as parent’s to witness such struggles for our children, can also be one of the biggest challenges we face.
At these times, it is very common to experience increased behavioural issues and sleep regression. Tantrums, aggression toward the baby or parent, resistance, or defiance are just your toddler’s way of trying to connect, gain our attention, and express their mixed feelings surrounding this change. Whilst it can all seem too hard at times, there are some simple things we can do to guide our children through this transition as smoothly as possible.
Here’s my tips for helping our children cope as best as they can following the birth of a sibling:
PREPARE HIM/HER FOR THE CHANGE
Reading Books can be a great way to prepare our little ones for the arrival of a new sibling. Role play with dolls, talking about the birth process, and encouraging your child to communicate and express any feelings they have surrounding the transition can make them feel more comfortable with the impending change.
Sometimes all our children want to feel is heard and understood; especially when they are dealing with a new baby in the family, and their parent’s attention and affection from them has shifted. Acknowledging our children’s emotions (be them positive or negative), helps them to label and normalise certain feelings without shame or judgement – e.g. “I know being a big brother/sister can be hard sometimes. It’s normal to feel angry/hurt/sad/confused” Positive reinforcement can also make them feel loved “Jett is so lucky to have a big brother like you”. Having a heart to heart with your toddler once they have drifted off to sleep, can also do wonders to communicate your love and acceptance to open (subconsciously receptive) ears and heart.
SET FIRM BOUNDARIES
Even if your child is having a hard time adjusting to the change, remaining firm with setting behavioural limits is paramount. Children feel more secure and confident in our parenting ability when they know they can expect consistency with our responses and reactions; with obvious no go zones including physical harm (or the threat of). Instead of getting angry toward our toddlers (which can exacerbate “bad” behaviour due to getting a rise/reaction/negative attention from us), calmly stating the boundary e.g. “I can see you want to jump near your brother, but it is not safe. Do you need me to take you somewhere else you can jump?” If they try to repeat the undesired behaviour, relocate them to a safe area they can jump without the risk of endangering the baby.
CREATE A SAFE SPACE
Having a safe space in your house where your toddler is free to explore, play and ‘be’ away from the baby is important. This is one less thing they are expected to ‘share’ with their sibling, and can be there ‘go to’ haven when they feel like jumping, being loud, making a mess, or bashing pots/pans, where they are not at risk of hurting the baby, or being told off by a frustrated parent. Equally important is having a safe space for the baby away from the prying hands of your toddler e.g. play pen, cot, bassinet.
KEEP A ROUTINE
Children thrive on consistency and feeling comfortable in knowing what they can expect; from our responses to their behaviour, to the boundaries we set, to the structure of their day. Keeping a consistent day and night routine (including wake times, meal times, nap times, wind down time, and bedtime routine) in the midst of huge life transitions such as the birth of a sibling, will help your toddler feel more secure. If your toddler is well-rested (having adequate night sleep and day rest), then they will be more capable of managing their impulses. Tantrums, limit-testing behaviour and aggression are almost always escalated when our toddlers are over-tired, hungry or dehydrated. If your toddler is not having a day nap anymore (recommended until 2.5-3yrs), then ensure they have stimulation-free down time during the day (e.g. quiet play in their bedroom, reading books, puzzles etc). Maintaining blood sugar levels with regular (healthy) meals and snacks, and hydrating with water throughout the day can do wonders in balancing moods and preventing tantrums.
AVOID OTHER TRANSITIONS
Adjusting to the role of big brother/sister is one of the biggest transitions our child will experience. Keeping everything else in their lives as consistent and predictable as possible, will help them adapt more easily. Now is not the time to begin toilet training, moving them into a big kid bed, night weaning, increasing child care days, weaning from the dummy/ bottle/breast/comforter, or starting sleep training. Try to make these changes at least 2-3 months either side of the arrival of a new baby, and keep in mind that during times of insecurity, they will rely on their sources of comfort even more (e.g. dummy, comforter, breast, bottle) – so a reminder to be patient, accepting and loving toward their ‘vices’; which in all fairness to them, we helped create.
DON’T EXPECT TOO MUCH
When we have a brand new, tiny, dependent baby, it is easy to forget that our toddler (albeit enormous by comparison) is also still somewhat a baby. Many of us subconsciously place expectations on them to cope, adjust, ‘grow up’, or accept new responsibilities prematurely; forgetting that until only recently, they were our babies. The sudden change in family dynamic can be a difficult adjustment for many children, so exercising patience, love, and compassion (without expectation), can make for a happier experience for everyone.
SPEND QUALITY TIME
Make the time to spend some quality one on one time with your toddler to fill their ‘attachment tank’. Aim for at least 3 x 10-15 connection points during the day where you can be truly present. Take them somewhere they love, or let them pick an activity to play with you; park, beach, for an ice cream, building blocks, or hide and seek. Use plenty of eye contact, and hugs and kisses to remind them they are still very loved, special, and you are there with them.
INCLUDE YOUR CHILD
Asking your toddler if they would like to help fetch nappies/wipes, and including them in the day-to-day routine care for a newborn is one way to make them feel loved and important. It may backfire with a defiant “no” at times, but at least you have empowered them to make their own decisions with respect to their level of involvement.
UP THE AFFECTION
With all the pouring over a newborn baby from family and friends, it is only natural your toddler will feel left out. The outcome is generally them engaging in undesired button-pushing behaviour for attention. Take advantage of any opportunity throughout the day to hug/kiss/play/read a book with your older child (especially roughhousing play for little boys!). Even if you spend just a series of brief moments throughout the day; it’s the little things which can make the big difference to your child’s emotional wellbeing and security at these times.
ENCOURAGE EXPRESSION OF FEELINGS WITHOUT JUDGEMENT
Your toddler is no doubt feeling an uncomfortable mix of emotions – grief/sadness/confusion/anger; much of this attributed to the loss of their parent’s attention which they have now been forced to share with a new baby. Much of these feelings will be expressed through tantrums, screaming, limit testing behaviour, and aggression toward a parent or the new baby. Chances are, even if your toddler is having a ‘melt down’ because they wanted a pink bowl and not a blue one, it’s really not about the colour of the bowl at all. It is important we provide a safe, judgement-free space to encourage healthy expression, and avoid ‘bottling up’ or teaching them that expressing emotions is shameful (this can result in suppressing emotions later in life). Remaining neutral, calm and helping our children to label their emotions, whilst also maintaining firm boundaries of acceptable behaviour is instrumental to their emotional wellbeing. E.g. if your toddler is crying/screaming you could help them by stating “You’re feeling angry” and “It feels good to scream sometimes doesn’t it?”. Sometimes all they want is some affection, so offering a cuddle at these times can also help diffuse the situation.
PRAISE THE POSITIVE
It’s a toddler’s job to test limits. They want to know we are on our game, and that we can parent with confidence and conviction. Most of the time when they “act out” it is because they want our attention (positive or negative does not matter). When they engage in undesired behaviour such as being rough with their sibling; instead of responding with an angry or frustrated “no”, “don’t do that”, “that’s naughty”or “be gentle”, it is important we model the right way for them to treat others e.g. calmly guide their hand to demonstrate how to be gentle. Offering positive reinforcement and praise for when they do kind behaviour, and avoiding directing too much energy into the negative behaviour (remember, that getting a rise from you is just as good as attention), will help encourage more positive behaviour.
ENCOURAGE INDEPENDENT PLAY
Encouraging your toddler to play independently in a safe place (without being a helicopter parent) is integral to their development, confidence, and security. Focus on just observing your child play. Try to not interrupt them whilst they are concentrating on a task, or depriving them of vital learning opportunities by being too quick to jump in and ‘fix’ their problems when they appear frustrated. Just your presence and availability is enough, and trust in your child’s choice of activity and ability to problem solve without your intervention.
It is just as important to allow your newborn/baby to experience independent play. Avoid over stimulating them by transitioning them from one activity to the next e.g. play mat, tv, bouncer, carrier, activity centre etc. (don’t confuse your boredom threshold with theirs!). Allowing them uninterrupted space and time to observe their surroundings without interfering, can make for a more settled baby, and more free time for you to spend with your toddler.
Got any other hot tips for helping your older child adjust to a new sibling? I’d love to hear from you!