Jaime Sumersille asked Parent Sense, "How do you introduce a new sibling to a toddler?"
A very good start is to already have a loving, supportive and structured family setting. I (Rebecca) like to use this phrase several times a week, "We are a family." We say this when we are giving a nice big family hug, when we are going to the park together or when we need to do something that is not agreed upon by all.
We also use this to explain how things work in our home, including acceptable behavior in situations (e.g., "We eat dinner at the table" or "We use our words and do not throw things when frustrated"). Keep this in mind when you are feeding, diapering or need to rest, as you'll want to make inclusive statements such as, "We need to do this for our family" or "We need to feed the baby."
Never say that you cannot do something because of the baby (e.g., "Not now, I have to feed the baby again" or "I am too tired because I stayed up with the baby all night"). Your toddler may start to resent the baby. Instead, say "I can help you when I am finished feeding the baby" or "our family is tired today, let's do that tomorrow when we have more energy."
It can be a difficult adjustment when a toddler has to share her family. It is a very big change when mom and dad have to give so much of their attention to the new baby. Be aware that it can take up to three to four months for the family to start to settle into a routine if your new baby is sleeping through the night (longer if the new baby is not). Between all the feedings, sleep deprivation and everyday work, a parent's time it stretched thin. This is why it is very important to prepare yourself and your toddler for the new addition.
Before baby arrives:
- Depending on her level of understanding, explain that there will be a new baby in the family. A young child needs to see something for it to be real, not just be told. Read picture books about babies and show pictures of baby in mom's uterus. A good book is Watch Me Grow by Stuart Campbell. Let her talk to and pat mommy's belly, and let her feel the baby kicking. Include her in the planning for the baby, e.g., choosing outfits, toys, decorating the room, equipment.
- Talk about what life will be like once the baby arrives. To do this, get out your toddler's baby pictures to show her and explain how you took care of her each day, such as holding, feeding, diapering, bathing, sleeping, cuddling, etc.
- Your toddler will need patience in order to deal with the unavailability of their mom/dad. As a parent you will need to train your toddler in the art of patience. Set-up situations where your toddler is exposed to delayed gratification. This will help to build a trust between the caregiver and toddler. They learn that although they can't get something right away, if it is promised by their parents (caregiver), it will definitely happen when the time arrives. One suggestion for teaching your toddler about patience (for when you are caring for the newborn) is to use a timer. When your toddler asks you to get a glass of juice, set the timer for 3 minutes and ask your child to wait. Gradually increase the time to 10-15 minutes. Then, after the baby is born and you need to feed the baby, set the timer for the amount of time you need and tell the toddler that when the timer goes off, you can get them a drink, play with them, etc. This helps to teach them to wait for things.
- In advance, set up "special playdates" with a relative, friend or caregiver who can entertain your toddler. It can even be a mother's helper or a neighbor who is at least eight years old. He or she can play in your home with your toddler while you are attending to the baby (you are not leaving them alone with the mother's helper; you are still at home but with the baby).
- Ask a relative or friend to have your toddler over for a sleepover once or twice a week for the first few months. Make sure this is fun and something your toddler looks forward to. Make it only once or twice a month or stop them altogether, if your child protests.
Now that baby is here:
- When you are feeding the baby, have your toddler snuggle up to you so you can tell her stories or watch a toddler-appropriate television show or short movie. She can also color next to you or anything she enjoys doing on her own.
- When you are about to feed the baby, tell your toddler that you know she can do good waiting while Mommy (or Daddy) feeds the baby. If she is able to do good waiting, then she can choose something special to do when the baby is done feeding and has gone back to sleep (or is relaxing in the swing or bouncy seat). Call it special Mommy (or Daddy) time. Spend 15-20 minutes playing with your toddler as many times as you can during the day. Then feedings become fun times for them, too.
- Your toddler may begin to misbehave while you are feeding the baby (one client's daughter would choose that time to climb on the dining room table or spill water everywhere). If that happens, the special Mommy (or Daddy) time is cancelled for that feeding.
- Have a toy box that is filled with some of your child's favorite (or new) toys that they can only play with during baby feeding times. This will give them something to look forward to and keep them entertained for 15 to 20 minutes.
- Visitors will come bearing gifts for the new baby, but may not think of the toddler. Have a few "dollar bin" toddler toys wrapped and hidden away for just these times. Also have the toddler open the baby's gifts.
- Give them small jobs, e.g., get a diaper, tell the baby a story, hand you a wipe, help soothe the baby. This makes them feel needed and helps to create a bond between toddler and baby.
- When the baby is napping, bring the toddler into a contained area, e.g., bedroom or gated den, and try to rest a little while sibling watches a video or plays.
- Teach your toddler about empathy for their baby sibling. Talk about what the baby might be experiencing; when awake, hungry, happy, sleeping, etc. This will help your toddler better understand that this is a little person with thoughts and feelings as well.
- Do not compare your toddler with the baby and vise versa. Potentially this can lead to resentment.
- Have your toddler talk openly about their feelings or give them the words if they are still learning to talk.
- Real jealousy usually starts when your baby begins to crawl and starts to play with the toddler's toys. Be sure to setup an area, gated or in another room, where your toddler can have some of her toys that she can designate as only hers.
A growing family is an exciting and new situation for everyone, and can be especially challenging for a young one to understand. By acknowledging the required changes and being proactive, the family can enjoy the process as a family.
(Editor's Note: The opinions in this article are those of Parent Sense, Inc. The opinions are not medical advice. Always consult your pediatrician about any changes you are contemplating.)