Helping Your Toddler Adjust to a New Baby
When I went to the hospital to have my second child, I remember thinking about what the first meeting between my toddler and my new baby would be like. For a brief moment, a terrifying vision of Chris screaming, "What is that thing?!" filled my mind.
But when the moment finally came, I saw the spark of true brotherhood right before my eyes. Chris smiled at his new brother and said, "He's small." Of course, my husband and I prepared our toddler for the arrival of our new family member by taking him to a sibling preparation class, giving him baby dolls to play with, taking him to see friends who had babies, etc. But in the weeks that followed little Justin's arrival, we learned that the time we spent helping our toddler adjust was more important than any preparation class. Here are some ways to help your toddler adjust to your new little one.
You cannot predict how your toddler will act he first time he sees the newborn. You can, however, try to make the first meeting easier. First, if you haven't seen your child since you gave birth, be sure you do before introducing baby. Show your toddler how much your belly has shrunk and tell him how much you missed him. After you have spent time with him, tell him he is going to meet his sibling. Try to use the baby's name, rather than always saying "the baby." This will help your toddler understand that the newborn is a person.
Dr. Andrea McCoy, assistant professor of clinical pediatrics at Pennsylvania State University and the Penn State Geisinger Health System, talks about the benefit of physical contact when introducing your toddler to your newborn. "It is so important that the older child isn't prohibited from touching the baby, but is shown how to gently touch in a positive way," she says. "Then the family can all cuddle up on the bed." Don't force your toddler to hold or touch your baby; but you should encourage it. If your toddler seems uninterested, follow his lead. He may just need some more time to adjust, or he may truly be uninterested (that will change!).
Bringing your baby home is always a joy. But remember, unlike when you brought your first child home, you may have to contend with a little person who doesn't quite understand why mommy is lying in bed with this baby all day. Why isn't mommy up doing the laundry, making meals, and more importantly, playing with me? Your routine is disrupted, and so is your toddler's. If possible, have dad or another family member or friend that your toddler is close to pick up the slack. Everyone wants to coo over the baby, but your toddler wants life back to normal! Designate someone to help him keep his schedule. Of course, if your toddler is content with admiring the baby like everyone else, then by all means, let him! "The toddler can be included in usual routines for the baby such as bathing, changing and snuggling up during feeding," says Dr. McCoy.
Also, let your toddler come visit you and the baby whenever he needs to. If he asks you to come play or do something that isn't feasible at that time, explain to him why you can't, and then offer to do something else (like read a book or watch a video with him). For those times when you really need your rest, be sure to get it. Your toddler (and your baby) won't benefit from an exhausted mommy.
The days and weeks following your newborn's homecoming may be a bit trying. You have a new person -- who is pretty demanding -- to care for and your toddler may not like having to share you with anyone. Dr. McCoy suggests frequently talking about the situation.
"The toddler should be encouraged to talk about 'his baby' and share in feeling that this baby is part of 'his family,'" she says. "They should be made to feel proud for being the big brother or big sister. But I caution parents to not put 'pressure' on the toddler to be a big boy or girl." It is perfectly alright to compliment your toddler by calling him a "big boy," but you should never say things like, "You shouldn't be crying -- you aren't the baby," or "I wish you wouldn't act like that -- remember, you are the big boy now."
Dr. McCoy also suggests spending one-on-one time with your toddler. "Make time for just mommy and toddler, just daddy and toddler and mommy, daddy and toddler," she says. "Often, friends and family will offer to take the older child for a day or night to 'give the parents a break.' Instead, this is a great time to let these folks stay with the baby so parents can get out to the park, or backyard or for a bike ride with the toddler."
It is especially important for parents to maintain rules and discipline. While having a new baby in the house can be tiring for both parents, toddlers can't be allowed to get away with everything. It may also seem like giving the toddler special privileges will help him adjust, but Dr. McCoy says to avoid these dramatic changes. "This is a time when children need the security of knowing what is expected and that the limits are always the same," she says.
Any large change to a toddler's life can create a difficult adjustment period. But preparation before baby comes home and keeping a close eye on how your toddler is reacting to the new situation will help tremendously. Before you know it, your children will be scheming to get to the cookie jar together, and there you'll be -- wondering where the time went.
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