16 Ways to Help Your Toddler Adjust to a New Baby
As we prepared for our second child, Bambino, to arrive, I was petrified of how Chulengo, our toddler, was going to adjust to the new baby. I was worried about how my relationship with him would change. We had finally gotten into a good routine. He was sleeping through the night, napping consistently, and eating well at mealtimes. He regularly attended preschool part-time and was excited about his new friends and teachers. Tantrums had mainly subsided, and we were enjoying each other’s company at home. I hated the idea of anything messing up our routine.
As my due date drew closer, I started to get anxious. How could I love another child as much as Chulengo? How was Chulengo going to respond to Bambino taking up so much of my time? What could I do to avoid bad habits that promoted challenging behavior from Chulengo?
Every day, I worried about how the transition would go. I researched as much as I could about transitioning from one child to two children. But, I learned as I have with most parenting transitions, you don’t know what you don’t know until you are in the thick of it.
Now that we are a few months into the transition, I put together a list of ideas to help other parents with the change. As I reflect on this transition from one child to two, there are some ideas I put on this list that, in hindsight, I should have tried. Some ideas I tried, and they worked wonderfully. And other ideas that didn’t work well for our family, but may work well for other families.
Before the baby arrives
1. Complete all major changes at least two months before the baby’s arrival
This advice was given to us by our pediatrician. When significant changes are made too close to the birth of a new sibling, an older sibling may develop some resentment toward the baby, placing blame on the new baby for the new changes that took place—often resulting in a serious behavioral regression.
We didn’t want Chulengo to associate significant changes in life with Bambino’s arrival if they didn’t need to be. There were three major transitions that we completed many months before Bambino arrived. We started Chulengo in preschool part-time. We transitioned Chulengo from the nursery to a big boy bedroom. And we were even able to potty train him…hallelujah.
We didn’t want Chulengo to think Bambino kicked him out of his nursery. Or that we were sending him away to school so we could spend time with Bambino. Or that he couldn’t use diapers anymore because Bambino needed diapers. Each transition was a major one, and we wanted Chulengo to feel as though he was doing it all on his own time. I am thankful we introduced these transitions early on in my pregnancy. Had we waited, I know we would have had a tough time and possible drawn-out regressions.
2. Talk about the baby and give the baby a name
Give the baby a name, even if you don’t have a real name picked out. This will help the toddler understand that the growing fetus is a real person. Also, talk about what the baby is doing and how the pregnancy is progressing.
Not knowing our baby’s gender until birth, meant we didn’t have a name picked out until he or she arrived. Therefore, we called the baby Bambino.
Chulengo and I talked about how big Bambino was each week, comparing Bambino’s size to a piece of fruit. Anytime I felt the baby kick, I would tell Chulengo. Sometimes I created a movement that simulated a baby kicking to get Chulengo excited. When items for Bambino arrived in the mail, whether it was an outfit, diapers, or gear, I explained to Chulengo how the baby would use the object. Then every time Chulengo saw the item, he would say, “That’s Bambino’s [chair]. That’s Bambino’s [bed].”
3. Read books about transitioning to a big sibling role
Role-playing can be very helpful for little ones to process emotions and communicate with parents. Books are a wonderful vehicle to encourage role-playing.
We do a lot of reading at bedtime, so I often use books to teach. I purchased several big brother books for Chulengo, which helped him see other characters in the role of a big brother. While reading, I would ask questions. What is the baby doing? Why is the baby sad? How is big brother/sister being helpful? Which helped open up conversations about new siblings.
4. Use a baby doll to practice caretaking tasks
Using a doll to practice role-playing can be helpful for the older sibling to understand what a baby is and how to treat the baby.
Having a baby doll to practice on was helpful for us. We changed the doll’s diapers and “fed” the doll a bottle regularly. We practiced holding the baby doll and putting it in the car seat. We packed a diaper bag for the baby doll and took it for a walk in the stroller.
Role-playing gave me insight into how Chulengo would handle a new baby. Most of the time, he was gentle with the doll. Occasionally, he would pick it up and chuck it across the room. I used those times as an opportunity to educate him on being gentle with the baby.
And now, that Bambino is here, Chulengo loves to help out with diaper changes and dressing Bambino…maybe a little too much. I haven’t had the guts to let him feed Bambino just yet, but he is eager to do so. Instead, I have encouraged him to “nurse” his baby doll next to me while I am nursing Bambino. Chulengo is using the baby doll to mirror what I am doing with Bambino.
5. Help the older sibling pick out a present for the new baby
Picking out a present for the baby allows the older sibling to own part of the baby’s arrival, which can help boost confidence and create positive anticipation for their new sibling’s arrival.
On the way to the store to pick out a gift for Bambino, Chulengo and I talked about what kind of gift he could get his baby sibling. I threw out typical ideas like a blanket, a book, or a toy. Then once we got to the store, Chulengo roamed around and picked out a couple of books and a ball for Bambino.
When we got home, he helped me wrap the gifts, and then we put them in Bambino’s nursery. Throughout the rest of my pregnancy, we talked about the presents to build up excitement for Bambino’s arrival.
6. Arrange for the baby to give a present to the older sibling
What toddler doesn’t love getting a new gift? Many toddlers will fawn over someone who gives them a gift.
I picked out a couple of gifts for Chulengo, saying they were from Bambino. My favorite finds were matching shirts for Chulengo, Bambino, and Dad and a personalized book for Chulengo.
I had the boys exchange these gifts when we got home from the hospital. When Chulengo opened his presents, he was more excited to have Bambino home. But looking back, I would have arranged for the boys to exchange one small gift at the hospital when Chulengo came to meet his brother. Chulengo had a tough time at the hospital, and I think receiving a present from Chulengo during that difficult moment would have made it easier for him.
After the baby arrives
7. When introducing the baby, place your baby in a bassinet when your toddler comes into the room
Many mom-friends gave this piece of advice. By placing the baby in a bassinet beforehand, the older sibling sees mom first, instead of the baby, which may be more comforting and less threatening for them.
Chulengo was a bit upset to see me in the hospital bed. It didn’t matter if I held the baby or placed the baby in the bassinet. He was more distracted by the fact that I was sitting in bed. Looking back, I should have sat up in a chair in the room, so I appeared as usual and healthy as possible.
8. Drive home from the hospital as a family, including the toddler
It’s essential that the older sibling feels like the baby is an addition to the family and not a replacement for the time and space they once had.
Chulengo stayed with family while my husband and I delivered and cared for the baby at the hospital. Instead of us bringing Bambino home to Chulengo after being discharged, we did something a little bit different.
We had our family bring Chulengo to the hospital just before discharge. He helped us carry Bambino down to the car, and we all drove home together.
We sang a couple of songs and asked Chulengo several questions. What was the first toy he wanted to show Bambino at home? Could he show Bambino where the nursery was? Where should we put Bambino’s chair at the dinner table? These questions opened up the conversation of how to incorporate Bambino into our daily life but allowed Chulengo to feel like he had some control.
9. Throw a birthday party for the baby when coming home from the hospital
A birthday party can serve as a pleasant distraction for the older sibling but also a celebration for the baby arriving home.
This was my favorite family activity after Bambino arrived. The day before we left the hospital, my husband went home to decorate for the party with a bunch of balloons, including a “0” balloon, and a cake with a “0” candle. So, when we arrived home from the hospital, there was a party set up, and Chulengo was very excited. It was such a positive way to introduce Bambino to our home.
Keep in mind; this was not a REAL party. It was just the four of us, plus grandma and grandpa. The six of us sang Happy Birthday to Bambino, ate cake, played with balloons, and helped the kids open up the gifts they had gotten for each other. This really set the mood, letting Chulengo know that Bambino’s arrival was a positive and fun experience.
10. Make a nursing basket to entertain the older sibling during feedings
Providing a source of entertainment for the older sibling while feeding a new baby can be challenging, but very important.
My biggest worry about having a new baby was figuring out how to nurse with a toddler in the house. When Chulengo was born, I would sit in the nursery for hours on end nursing. It was just the two of us, uninterrupted, all day long.
Now, our house is a circus. So finding quiet time to nurse is challenging. My nursing relationship with Bambino is much different than it was with Chulengo. I am not as focused. It’s not as quiet. And Chulengo will vie for time with me when he sees me nursing the baby.
So, to make things a little bit easier, I created an activity basket for Chulengo. He only gets to access this basket during nursing sessions. I put items in the basket that Chulengo loves and doesn’t regularly play with to keep them unique and exciting. This basket has been the key to keeping him occupied during my nursing sessions with Bambino.
11. Ask for help from the older sibling
Older siblings typically like to feel important. By giving them a task related to the baby, you can provide the older sibling with a sense of pride and ownership to care for the baby.
From day one, we put Chulengo in charge of Bambino’s feet. Meaning, he had to get socks for Bambino and make sure that Bambino’s feet stayed warm. Thankfully, Chulengo was pretty excited about this and ran to the nursery to get socks whenever we needed them. If he wanted to touch, tickle, or kiss the baby, he was allowed to touch, tickle, or kiss Bambino’s feet.
Anytime I am changing a diaper, playing with Bambino, feeding Bambino, I always ask Chulengo for help. Can he get me a new diaper, a pacifier, a toy, a burp cloth? Sometimes he wants to help; other times, he doesn’t. But, I make sure he has the option to be included if he chooses.
12. Spend one on one time with the toddler every day
Because an older sibling will often feel threatened by the constant presence of the new baby, one-on-one time is crucial. Make a daily goal of at least 20 minutes alone with your older child, but take whatever time you can get. Maybe you can only squeeze out a 5-minute episode of one-on-one time with your older child. Perhaps you will get a solid hour or more. Whatever time you get alone with your older child, take advantage of it.
When I am preparing Bambino for a nap, I ask Chulengo to pick an activity for us to do together alone once Bambino is asleep. I call it “Special Time With Mom,” (creative, I know, lol), and he seems to get excited about this time together. Chulengo will often stay quiet while I put the baby down because he is looking forward to one on one time with me. He knows if he is loud, then Bambino might not take a nap, and then we won’t have our time together. So, as I put Bambino in his crib, I whisper to Chulengo, “Ok, what do you want to do during our special time?”
I have also started incorporating Chulengo into my daily activities around the house. For example, he helps me pack the diaper bag, restock the bathrooms, organize the playroom, empty the dishwasher, sort the laundry, and vacuum. This allows for five to ten minutes here and there with Chulengo, which begins to add up. I get some stuff done around the house. And he feels helpful. So it’s a win-win for both of us.
13. Teach the older sibling how to care for the new baby
Teaching a toddler how to handle an infant and behave safely around a baby is essential.
Even though we practiced with the baby doll before Bambino came along, there were several activities we had to revisit after Bambino was born. We worked on teaching Chulengo how to touch gently and give the baby space.
When changing diapers, I verbalized each step. First, we take off the dirty diaper. Then, we spray Bambino’s bum. Then we wipe his bum clean. Then we put on paste if needed. Then we put on a fresh diaper. By walking Chulengo through each step, he was able to learn how to assist. Now helping out with the baby has become a form of entertainment for Chulengo.
14. Acknowledge feelings
Most children, and even adults, communicate better and respond well when their feelings are acknowledged.
This one has taken me a couple of months to grasp and begin to master. And I still struggle with it regularly. Initially, when Chulengo would act up, I would say, “Don’t do this… don’t do that…” When I would say those phrases, Chulengo would get so upset. With a sad look in his eyes, he would start hitting and throwing things. I would get frustrated, and our interaction would snowball into an even bigger disaster.
After a few weeks of trying different strategies to calm him down, I realized that if I just acknowledged his feelings, I could minimize most tantrums. Saying “Chulengo, it looks like you are [sad, mad, lonely, jealous, overwhelmed, etc.],” made a world of difference. Recognizing how he was feeling, allowed us to connect briefly and for him to reset.
I recently started using the Generation Mindful program. I created a time-in corner for Chulengo. When emotions start running high, we both go to the time-in corner, and we discuss how he is feeling. Then he chooses a calming strategy from the Generation Mindful poster. While initially time-consuming and emotionally taxing for me, this process has made a world of difference with how I handle emotional situations with Chulengo.
15. Use positive phrases when giving direction
No one likes always to be told, “don’t do this; don’t do that.” It’s frustrating. So, when acknowledging Chulengo’s feelings, I have learned to follow up with a more positive statement like a “Do/Can” phrase to decrease the tension.
For example, Chulengo may start yelling loudly while playing with his toys. If I say, “Chulengo, don’t yell. The baby is sleeping,” he gets more upset and yells more. Both of our levels of frustration escalate.
Now, I have learned to say, “Chulengo, it sounds like you are having a lot of fun. Can you play more quietly?” and I get a totally different response from him.
By asking him to do something instead of not do something, I have a much better interaction. with him. More examples:
“Don’t throw blocks.”
“Don’t jump off the couch.”
“Can you be quieter?”
“Can you stack the blocks?”
“Do you need a hug?”
“Do you want to go play in the backyard?”
16. Give Yourself Grace
You are going to have some really good days. Moments where your older child(ren) will bond with the new baby. Days where everyone is on schedule, and you get a little quiet time to yourself. Times when everyone is in a good mood and following directions. Moments when your heart will melt and you will feel really lucky.
Then you are going to have some terrible days. Probably more bad days than good days. Days you don’t get out of your spit-up covered pajamas until dinner. Days, where you feel like everyone in the house, is working against you. Days when you get absolutely nothing done. Days where you are so tired at the end of the day, you can barely make it. Days when nothing is working to keep everyone on track. Days where you feel like you are failing on all levels.
Allow yourself to have those days. They are going to happen. Keep your expectations really low. Get help if needed. Ask your partner, a friend, or a family member, to give you a break. Put the kids into the stroller and go for a walk. Strap them into the car and drive around. Take a bath after everyone, hopefully, goes to bed. Read a book to take your mind off the stresses of parenting.
But most importantly, go to sleep knowing that tomorrow is a new day. You are a good parent. You are exactly who your children need to raise them.
Adding a sibling to the family is a big deal for parents and siblings. No matter how much you prepare, this phase of life may be the most chaotic, emotional roller coaster of life. Have you found other ways to ease the transition of adding a new sibling to the family?