For a sibling, the arrival of a new baby in the house is not always met with the same joy that parents feel. Here are some ways to help the bonding process.
Siblings are such an incredible gift for young children, yet strangely, toddlers don’t always seem to appreciate these gifts as much as we think they should. In fact, many toddlers probably wish they could ‘re-gift’ their new baby siblings. A baby’s arrival brings enormous changes for your child, so here are some tips for helping your toddler adapt to and bond with the new baby.
Your hospital stay
There are things you can do to make this separation from your toddler less distressing. Skyping morning and night worked well for us. I also packed quiet activities that my daughter would be easily able to do in my hospital room (colouring in, puzzles, etc) and planted little treasure hunts around my room before her visits.
Be prepared for newborn gifts
People are often incredibly generous when you have a baby, but toddlers can often feel left out. Either stash the baby’s gifts away and open them after-hours, or have a small supply of pre-wrapped gifts that you can bring out for your toddler to have if he seems to be struggling.
Encourage your toddler to help
You can help make your toddler feel helpful by including them in small decision-making about the baby (e.g. “Which do you think would be a better outfit for our baby today – this one or that one? Thanks for helping”). And, if you have a particularly helpful toddler, she can certainly assist by passing you wipes, nappies, or joining you as you gently massage your baby together.
Ensure life goes on as usual
Of course, everything isn’t normal (especially not your energy levels), but the birth of a new baby sibling shouldn’t mark the end of all fun activities if possible. If you can still manage to get to your toddler’s favourite playgroup sessions with a new baby in tow, then try your best to do so. Otherwise, you risk your toddler making the association between ‘birth of sibling = end of fun stuff’, which isn’t the best for sibling bonding.
Don’t complain (within earshot of your toddler)
This one’s pretty self-explanatory. This is a huge change and your toddler is monitoring everything you say and do to help her inform her own attitude towards this change. If you wake every morning complaining about how your new baby kept you awake all night (even if he did) and so it’s the baby’s fault that you’ve got no energy to jump on the trampoline, then the toddler will soon get a sense of a ‘you versus baby’ dynamic and inevitably side with you. Instead, if you want your toddler to think positively about your baby, you’ll need to consciously speak positively about your baby.
Spend time all together
It’s great if you and your partner can at times spend 1:1 time with each of your children (known in our house as “dividing and conquering”). But it’s also important that you spend quality time with your toddler and baby together. Our favourite activity during this early stage was “smiling practice”. I explained to my toddler that babies need to learn everything – they even need to learn how to smile. Then, when our baby was happily awake, my toddler and I would gaze at her and smile. My toddler was proud of her role in teaching her younger sibling the art of smiling and when our baby finally smiled back at her, she was completely delighted.
Quality time with your toddler
It’s important to enjoy special 1:1 time with your toddler but try to ensure that you save her very favourite activities for when her baby sibling is with you both. The risk of doing your toddler’s favourite activities only when the baby is asleep is that your toddler might soon assume that life would resemble some sort of blissful nirvana full of loving attention and favourite things … if only the baby would sleep forever.
Managing feeding time
Often mothers find this to be a difficult time, attempting to engage their toddlers while remaining stationary enough to feed their infants at the same time. A helpful idea is creating a box of ‘special feeding activities’ that are only produced during the baby’s feed time. This can include some new books, little toys or puzzles. Again, it’s about creating that positive association with the baby in the mind of your toddler.
Talk to your baby about your toddler
Some mothers feel guilty for gazing at their babies in front of their toddlers. Gazing at your baby is not only incredibly important for bonding, but it also plays a critical role in their brain development. A lovely easy way to have this time with your newborn is to gaze at your baby while you chat to them about their older sibling. Your baby will only take in your eyes, your facial expression and your tone, but your toddler will also notice your words. It’s hard to be resentful if what your toddler hears is: “Gosh, I bet you can’t wait to grow up and play hide and seek with your big brother. He’s lots of fun you know – I bet you’ve already worked that out though, haven’t you? You really love him.”
A word about play
Your toddler might want to role-play being either the parent or baby in her play, it’s all perfectly normal. Aggressive play is also normal. If your toddler is hurting a baby in their play, it’s a good opportunity to acknowledge aloud that they seem to be feeling angry towards the baby. Play provides a wonderful opportunity for children to make sense of the changes in their life and communicate their difficulties with you (as long as it’s clearly understood that real aggression towards your real baby is not okay).
Understand the feelings behind your toddler’s behaviours
Some toddlers are able to express their feelings in words. Others will communicate their distress through their behaviours. This is a challenging time for your toddler and while they need limits, they also need your understanding.
Enjoy this stage for what it is
Lastly, enjoy this life stage. There will be days when it will seem like a major achievement that you all survived. But I’m quite convinced that no-one ever lies on their death bed wishing that they’d spent more time asleep. Rather, it seems more likely that people reflect back on these years and wished that they had really cherished them.
Dr Kaylene Henderson is a medically trained Child Psychiatrist, trusted parent educator and mother of three. Head to her website for lots of free tip sheets, articles and her practical online video-based courses for parents and educators: drkaylenehenderson.com