Preparing Your Toddler for a New Baby

How to best prepare a needy two year old for the arrival of a new baby?

Dr. Susan Rutherford (MOM): No matter what you do in advance as a parent, adjusting to a new baby in the house will be difficult for most toddlers.

You can start preparing the older child far in advance by showing him (or her) your expanding belly and talking about the baby growing inside. Share your excitement that he’s going to have a new baby sister or baby brother (if you know the gender that makes this part easier), and talk respectfully about how he will get to be a big brother.

Really, though, no amount of preparation will do the trick because bringing a new baby into a house requires a tremendous amount of adjustment for everyone involved.

It’s a big deal when a baby is born and the baby is no longer just a concept or an idea; it’s now a reality. Understandably, kids who were there first can have big-time trouble adjusting to this new reality. One important thing is to be sure to protect the new, younger child from any kind of aggression from an impulsive toddler. If the older child is four-years old, it’s usually a whole lot easier because a four-year old can understand that a baby is delicate. But a two-year old still doesn’t have control over his own behavior and likely will be feeling somewhat resentful for being displaced in the parent’s attentions by the baby, so parents have to make sure they protect a baby from any aggression or acting out.

MOLLY: How do you deal with that aggression? Is there anything you can do to help a toddler adjust to a new baby and not become aggressive toward it?

MOM: Yes, you can continually talk to the child about behavior expectations regarding the baby. Say things like: “We have to be gentle with the baby; she’s not as big or as strong as you are.”; “We don’t hurt the baby; we want to protect your baby sister/brother.”

You can model appropriate behavior for the child to emulate: “We don’t hit; we stroke the baby’s hand. Let me show you how to do it.” The toddler probably has some sort of baby doll or toy animal or something like that that he can use to learn how to treat a baby with cuddling, stroking, cooing, and other behaviors.

MOLLY: You also mentioned in a previous post that it’s a good idea for a recently-delivered mom to try to spend some one-on-one time alone with an older child after the baby arrives.

MOM: I think that’s a good idea to make that one-on-one time happen. It’s a really hard time – there’s no getting around it. It’s a real challenge for moms to deal with multiple needy children and do them all justice.

Another thing that can be helpful for mom’s sanity and perspective is to talk to other moms with new babies and older children… people who are in the same boat. It can offer quite a relief to find other people experiencing the same kind of ordeals that you’re experiencing.

Even for moms who’ve been through new babies several times before, the experience can be challenging. Even though you might intellectually understand and feel prepared that life is going to become more difficult, you don’t really know what it’s going to be like until it actually happens.

One of the other things to keep in mind is that this stage does not last forever; things will get better.

MOLLY: What may happen if you don’t step in and really set the boundaries and expectations of acceptable behavior between siblings at this early stage?

MOM: In some families, sibling relationships work themselves out just fine and the older child accepts the younger child and may actually align with the younger child, so that the siblings feel like they’re in this thing called life together. This type of sibling relationship needs to be constantly encouraged by the parents to happen.

However, if the parents don’t offer any kind of intervention and allow their children to treat their siblings as rivals rather than allies, long-term animosity can develop between the siblings and continue into adulthood. I see time and time again that when an older sibling is constantly cruel and/or abusive (physically and/or verbally) to his or her younger sibling, the younger child may not develop a healthy sense of self-esteem. A low self-esteem can lead to chronic under-achievement or self-destructive decisions and behaviors that follow  them all their lives.

Some sibling rivalry is normal in all families, but if parents don’t intervene early to put limits on behaviors, the older child may nurture an inarticulate anger and maybe even rage toward the younger child for usurping his position in the family simply by being born. This can negatively effect both the younger child’s and the older child’s relationships with others as adults because they subconsciously replay this unhealthy sibling dynamic.

This kind of life-long drama and negativity probably can be prevented with early intervention by the parents from the beginning. I often think of sibling rivalry as having roots in fights for the parents’ attention. If the parents can successfully convey that there’s plenty of love, space, and attention for all of their children, it can go a long way in preventing long-term issues with interpersonal relationships when those children mature into teens and adults.

Experience this? Comment below if you’ve had success helping your child adjust to his or her new sibling. Or Contact US if you have other parenting questions you’d like to see addressed.

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