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Little ones don't always love their people being taken by a smaller person, so getting these people to love each other is some tricky territory. To help them through the transition, here are 15 things you can do before baby arrives, when your toddler meets your babe, and during the first months postpartum to keep your toddler feeling cherished and full, and loving that little person.
BEFORE BABY COMES
Keep an open door to let your toddler process thoughts and feelings about it. Let them tell you whatever they think about having a baby, both before and after the fact. Ask them how they feel about being a big brother, what they think it’ll be like. Have them draw pictures or make up songs. Let them know what will change about their daily routine when the baby arrives. If your little one starts to get upset, you can use the opportunity to reassure them and talk them through it. Highlight the great things about being an older sibling, all the things they can do not only for the baby, but also that baby can’t do. If they don't want to talk, don't push it, but create the space where they can if they want to.
Both boys and girls can benefit from role-playing what it will be like to be a big sibling. Get a doll (a weighted doll would be awesome, though not necessary) and go through a day with the routines that will be a part of baby's day. You can take moments when "baby" is crying, needs to eat, needs a diaper change, needs to be comforted (a great time to teach gentleness), and other activities. Let your toddler wear the baby in a carrier, do diaper changes (using maxi pads as doll diapers works well) and 'help' as much as possible. Always complement them on their skill.
There are some great childrens books available about becoming an older sibling, like the I'm a Big Sister and I'm a Big Brother books. One completely amazing book is The Big Sibling Book: Baby's First Year According to ME, is an adorable keepsake that will help prepare your older one for babe. Avoid ones with negative themes; children may not naturally think of all the reasons they wouldn’t want a sibling, and putting those ideas in their heads for them is self-sabotage. TV can be a great help too: there are episodes of shows such as Daniel Tiger where the lead character gets a baby sibling. Letting your little one see it may help them process through the characters story.
Before your older child arrives, pass the baby to someone else.
One of the best things you can do for an older sibling who hasn’t seen you since you were whisked away to labor is be available for the snuggles and connection they desperately need in that moment. Handing the baby off frees you to take some time to fill their tank before they see you holding another little person. You want to minimize the feeling of being displaced, and this one move will go miles in reassuring them that there is enough love and snuggles to go around.
Introduce your baby to your child, instead of the other way around.
The natural thing to say is “Do you want to meet your little sister? Isn’t she adorable?”
Instead, introduce baby to big brother. “This is your big brother. He is such a wonderful big brother who will take great care of you. He's mommy’s big helper.” Hearing adoring words about himself while and feeling like the new person is being introduced into a family where he has a secure and important role- can help immensely.
Let them be present at the birth
Obviously this is not for everyone. But having been a part of a number of births with little ones present, the dynamic is usually beautiful and the bond between siblings instant. If you go this route, there should be helper (not dad) specifically assigned to toddler who can soothe your little one, explain things, and take them out of the room if needed. This can be an incredible way for your little one not only to learn the natural process of how babies enter the world, but also be a part of a monumentally sacred and bonding moment in your family's history. (A hint here: Always prepare your child in advance for a birth. It can look and sound pretty traumatic to a small person, so many talks and even watching birth videos can help to prepare little ones and reduce any fear that might creep up.)
We did a gift swap for our then almost three year old, and it was one of the best ideas we’ve ever tried. Let the older sibling know that baby has a gift for them, but the baby wants to give them the gift herself, so he or she has to wait until baby is born to get the very special gift. Pick out something special that can be fun and also a keepsake for your toddler (we chose a stuffed animal). In the meantime, allow the older child to pick out a gift-it can be something they’ve outgrown, something they made, or take your little one shopping to pick something out. When they first meet, allow them to exchange the gifts.
AFTER BABY IS HOME
Pour on the complements
Encourage the love and bonding by complementing every bit of growth and good decisionmaking you see your toddler. In times like these, little ones need to hear things like:
How the baby loves you!
Look how he’s smiling at you.
You are so loving to her.
You are such a great big sister.
You're learning how to be gentle so well.
You're such a great helper.
Let them help.
Giving toddlers a sense of responsibility and pride in caring for the baby can be incredibly helpful for a little one trying to find their role in the changing dynamic of the household. Find small ways that he or she can assist in caring for baby, but don't push it if they're not ready or don't want to.
Give focused older sibling time
Have regular, focused time just with your older kid(s). You don’t have to get fancy here- just be as present as possible. Let them choose the activity- for a few minutes, for an hour, whatever you’ve got- undivided attention means the world when reassuring a child of their place in your heart. Snuggles help too.
Create peace around your postpartum
When you plan postpartum to be an incredibly restful, nourished time for you, you’re able to have the energy and strength to give to all of your kiddos what they need. If you’re trying to do everything you did pre-baby, having the energy for older children is nearly impossible. Don't try to do all the things. Enlist help (spend money if needed, it really is that important) and lay in bed with your kids while people do the things. If you can’t get help, lay around with your kids anyway, as much of the time as possible.
Ease off the pressure
Little ones don’t know how to handle littler ones. They are usually overly rough and unsure and sometimes angry about it. Don’t expect them to be beyond their years in ability, but rather gently teach them as they interact with their little sibling, always encouraging continued interaction, but teaching gentleness and appropriate handling. **This is COMPLETELY exhausting. And you are completely amazing.
Fill the love tank
You’ll get so much more bang for your buck when you’re able to identify what makes your child feel loved, and spend your precious minutes pouring in in that specific way. Read The 5 Love Languages of Children to find out more and become super intentional about how you love your kids so that the time and attention you can give them is as effective as possible.
Meltdowns happen. This transition can be a really difficult one for littles, but with your help, they’ll get through it beautifully. Do your best to curb frustration and offer lots of hugs, love, and empathy. Keep encouraging them and heaping praise whenever there is a positive interaction between them and baby.
Sometimes you’ll be pulled by both kids, and many times it will feel like an impossible task to meet the needs of all the small people. And that's ok. While infants express needs rather than wants, being constant entertainment for toddlers (or kids, or teenagers) is not the best strategy for building capable humans. Boredom is a gift that allows for imagination, self-regulation, and creativity. Age-appropriate contribution instills self-reliance, responsibility, and teamwork, which in turn build productive and happy people. Children need to be a part of the family team as early as possible- not for your sake, but for theirs. So when you cannot possibly meet every demand of every small person in your household simultaneously, remember- this is a gift, not a problem. Take the deep breaths. Drink the coffee. YOU, warrior momma woman- are doing amazing.
What did you do to help your older kids adjust to baby?
Let us know in the comments below!