Your first-born has been at the centre of your attention since birth, but now baby number two is here. Here are some ways to ease the anxiety of introducing your new baby to his toddler sibling.
When contemplating the arrival of our second baby, my husband and I found ourselves besieged by a host of anxieties quite unlike those we had felt at the birth of our first. Least of our concerns were the actual birth and whether we’d know what to do. Our fears now centred on how to manage two different routines, and how to make our means and our love stretch to two. And, of course we were anxious about how our toddler would react to having a new baby brother or sister.
If this sounds like a familiar scenario to you, help is at hand. Here, experts and moms offer tried-and-tested solutions.
Before baby arrives
Expanding your family is exciting and a cause for great joy, but it won’t be without its ups and downs. The trick in your last few months and weeks of pregnancy is to plan ahead and prepare yourself and your older children for the adjustment.
Read more about what to expect in the first 100 days after baby’s birth
Dealing with guilt
Ravaged by guilt about sharing yourself with another? Your first child is probably not too bothered by your divided attention. “Toddlers have other agendas, like collecting sticks and stones and playing make-believe games, and are pretty easily distracted so not as dependent on you as your newborn is,” says Ann Richardson, parent coach and author of Toddler Sense (Metz Press).
Do some explaining
If your toddler is under the age of four, adopt a low-key attitude about the forthcoming arrival; she is still too young to understand the concept of pregnancy. A preschool child understands more, so about three to four months before the baby is due, tell her about the birth (she will most likely be asking questions about the size of your tummy by now), but don’t go overboard with too much detail unless she asks. Assure her that having another baby will not affect how much you love her. “I found that reading a book to my two-year-old daughter was helpful. I explained that I was going to hospital, and tried to keep it exciting and fun,” says Samantha du Plessis, stay-at-home mom to Chloé, two, and Alice, one month.
Get organised in advance with pre-cooked meals, an online grocery delivery service and a stocked pantry.
Involve your toddler
Get them to help you shop for and set up the nursery; it will make her feel involved. It’s important to make the arrival of a new baby exciting and positive for the whole family. Refer to the new arrival as “our” baby.
At the time of the birth
The initial meeting may well influence how your first child feels about and reacts to his sibling. It’s important to accommodate his feelings.
There are two distinct schools of thought on whether to have your toddler visit you in hospital or not.
Some say it will be traumatic for you to disappear for two or three days without your child knowing where you are. Johannesburg childcare consultant and parent coach Stephanie Dawson-Cosser suggests: “Take your toddler on a tour of the hospital and explain that this is where mommy is coming to have the baby, then let her visit you there. This way the building is familiar, it normalises going to hospital and it’s not something to be feared.”
Others argue that it is more traumatic for a small child to have to say goodbye to you when visiting hours are over. “He may not understand why you can’t come home with him, or why he can’t stay with you. This unnatural separation can cause distress. You have such little time with your precious newborn before going home to ‘face the music’, it is a special time to bond with your new baby without distractions, so use it fully,” says Richardson. A toddler is also unnecessarily exposed to germs in hospital. As long as he’s happy and content in his home environment, with a predictable routine and plenty of emotional support, he should take your absence in his stride.
The moment of meeting
Whether at home or in the hospital, when your older child sees you and the new baby for the first time after the birth, you should not be holding the baby. Rather focus all your attention on your first child; greet her warmly and hug and kiss her as usual.
The power of gifts
“I had a gift for my older child, Caylyn, for each day she came to visit at the hospital. This was a real hit and to this day she still remembers what her brother gave her when he was born. It made all the ‘ooing’ and ‘aahing’ over him go unnoticed and she didn’t act up during the visits. She wanted to hold her brother, which we allowed, and this made a difference for her,” says Jacqui Fincham, Cape Town environmental consultant and mom to Caylyn, four, and Patrick, two.
Bringing baby home
Arriving home after the birth is when most moms find the challenges really begin. It’s important to keep things as normal and as calm as possible – the whole family will benefit. And don’t be shy to ask for help.
Routine is your friend
Sticking to your toddler’s routine scrupulously makes the whole family feel more secure. It’s best to fit the baby’s routine around the toddler’s.
Don’t give in
It’s normal to worry about having enough time, energy and love for another child, so don’t fall into the trap of over-compensating by allowing your toddler to always get her own way.
Keep “no” to a minimum
Try to avoid making interactions between toddler and the baby negative by saying “no” too often. If you’re always saying, “don’t touch the baby”, your toddler will cotton on that touching the baby gets your attention and will continue to do it. It’s a good idea to let your older child hold the baby in a safe situation (sitting in an armchair, for example) that you can supervise. If your toddler isn’t interested, encourage participation but don’t force it.
Dealing with jealousy
Your older child might not have the vocabulary to express himself, but this doesn’t mean he isn’t feeling angry, jealous or betrayed. Help him name his emotions, for example: “I know you are feeling cross because Mommy is busy with the baby.” Jealousy is quite normal at this age. Show him safe ways to vent – like digging a deep hole in the sandpit or going outside with you to shout as loud as he can, suggests Dawson-Cosser.
Find special time
The best way to reassure your first-born and reinforce your love is to find some special time each day for her. A special outing alone with her or an activity of her choice goes a long way to making a small child feel secure. Having her own-age friends over to play is another great idea, as the focus is on her.
Little helper, not little mommy
Your child will help as much as he can, within the bounds of what feels comfortable for him. Allow special time for him to be a child – to do childish things. There are other times to be a helper. “It’s important that he isn’t always referred to as “big brother”, let him be himself. Be careful of giving labels as this is an important time for his sense of identity,” explains Dawson-Cosser.
When you don’t have time to play
Mothers-of-two (or more) become the ultimate multitaskers. Try reading to your toddler while breast-feeding the baby, for example. Or while you’re cooking, introduce a kitchen cupboard that can be unpacked.
Get a goodie box
“Put together a little box of age-appropriate, wrapped goodies for your toddler (for example a small box of Smarties or a toy bottle), and keep this in the baby’s room,” suggests Richardson. When you’re busy with the baby and can’t attend to your toddler, let her choose a surprise. “The process of choosing and unwrapping will buy you some time to finish what you’re doing,” she says.
Expect a regression in your toddler’s behaviour. She may demand a bottle or dummy again, or start wetting her bed. Keep calm, give her what she asks for, and know that it will pass with time, suggests Richardson.
Sharing: yours versus mine
Usually toys and clothes that your first child has outgrown can be tucked away after she’s stopped using them and brought back for the new child without an issue. But if there’s a “that’s mine” reaction, introduce the item in the context of belonging to the family, for use at a certain life stage, says Dawson-Cosser. Say: “when you were a baby you used this; now you are a big girl, and it’s the baby’s turn to use it”. This technique depends on the child’s ability to understand negotiation. If the gap is very close, you might need to give each child time with the item.
“I asked my daughter to help me select some of her old things that she was too big for, so that the new baby could use them. If the child willingly gives them up herself, they don’t feel they are being deprived,” says Lisa Lait, a Johannesburg-based marketing manager and mom to Robyn, five, and Rowan, three.
Business as usual
Quite often, a second child arrives as the first is learning to use the potty, or starting playschool. Keeping things as much the same as possible at the time of the birth helps a child to feel more secure. “You don’t want a child to feel they are being sent away because there is only space for the new baby in the house,” says Lait.
Brief your visitors
When visitors arrive to see the new baby, let her show them to the nursery, and allow her to help open the baby’s gift, this way she will feel included. “I asked friends who came to visit at home to please ask permission from Robyn to see her little brother when they arrived and this worked really well,” says Lait.
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Settling in once the excitement has passed
Coping with the extra workload
Use every bit of help offered. Turn off your phone when you’re resting and limit visitors to a specific time of the day. If you have a granny or a nanny on standby, make lists of tasks for them so that you can give yourself and the children the attention you all need to adjust.
Don’t forget Dad
Look after your relationship with your partner – remember that you are in this together.
Happy you, happy babies
It’s perfectly normal to feel overwhelmed. Your mental health is extremely important while parenting. “Try not to be Superwoman. Be aware of perfectionism, and remind yourself that you can let go of some things (like housework).
At this time the main thing is adjusting to your children,” says Dr Alison Sampson, a Durban-based clinical psychologist with an interest in maternal mental health. She recommends regular exercise and lots of social contact to manage stress and anxiety. If you are battling to sleep when the children sleep, or you have frightening thoughts, it may be time to talk to your doctor, a psychologist, or contact the Postnatal Depression Support Association (visit pndsa.co.za).