Given the constant barrage of unsolicited advice from friends, family, acquaintances, and complete strangers that I experienced as a first time mom, it struck me as odd that nobody had much to offer when we were expecting our second. Sure, people loved raising an eyebrow and making “hilarious” remarks like, “You’re sure going to have your hands full,” or “Two in diapers, huh?” and couldn’t stop themselves from exclaiming, “Perfect! You’re done!” when they found out we were pairing our son with a daughter, but I was hard pressed to find anyone offering legitimate advice.
So, while I didn’t set out to write an “advice” blog (because, who am I to give it?), I’m going to go ahead and share my two cents on what helped ease my toddler’s transition from “only child” to “big brother,” pieced together from talking to people I trust, reading (finding the best and most concise advice in a great post by Janet Lansbury), and, mostly, just flying by the seat of my pants:
1. Take it easy. It was important to me that I didn’t build the transition into something even bigger and more daunting than it was by allowing our lives to revolve around it for 3/4 of the year prior. Nine months, after all, is a LONG time to let a toddler’s anxiety snowball. Until my belly was impossible to ignore (which was quite a bit earlier the second time around), I really didn’t talk about the pregnancy with the Bug. Once he started referencing – usually drumming on – my belly, I would acknowledge that there was a baby growing inside (just like he had!), and then move on. Simple. Factual. Plenty. It wasn’t until we started dragging the baby stuff out of the garage, installing the second carseat, and shopping for tiny diapers that Babygirl’s impending arrival became an unavoidable part of our daily conversations. (And at that point, we were on a timeline where it made sense to be preparing him for the change.)
2. Avoid playing up “Big Brother” and “Big Sister” language. While some older kids might wear the badge with pride, it’s too much pressure for a one year old. Toddlers have a tremendous amount of ambivalence about their burgeoning independence; they want to be their own people, but it still scares the heck out of them. The impending change in the family dynamic is frightening enough for a toddler without the constant reminder that he is being pushed out of his role as the baby and now has to adopt the role of “big brother,” one that he neither asked for nor understands.
3. Tell him the plan. Toddlers love predictability. They love plans. As we got closer, I made sure to tell the Bug what would happen when the baby was ready to be born so he wouldn’t be alarmed if he woke up one morning and my mom was there to get him out of his crib. I didn’t go into much detail (he was barely 19 months old, for crying out loud), but wanted him to know that Nana would come stay with him while Dad and I went to the hospital and that the baby I would have to stay for a few days so the doctors could take care of us (and, let’s be honest, so I could take naps, a luxury that wouldn’t be available back at home), but he would be able to come and visit if he wanted.
The plan was also reinforced in the book we made him about becoming a big brother, which I gave him two or three weeks before Babygirl was due. In spite of its cover broadcasting the label that I just forbade, the book is a really great template that talks about how he used to be a baby, what things will be like with a new baby in the house, and the reassurance that Mom and Dad’s love won’t change. I have no idea whether it actually “helped,” but the Bug LOVED that book (mostly because it was filled with pictures of his hero, Daddy) and wanted to read it all the time.
4. Talk to the baby about what you’re doing with your toddler. I am a big believer in talking to babies. The second time around, this habit proved even more valuable when it had the unexpected effect of affirming my toddler. Being able to say, “I hear you, Babygirl. I am helping your brother in the bath right now. Once he’s all dried off, I will be able to hold you,” was not only reassuring for her, but served to highlight for the Bug all of the times throughout the day that I “chose” him.
5. Remember what they say about assuming. Your toddler will do a lot of things that are dangerous for the baby, but most of them are not intended to cause harm. It’s natural for Mama Bear to want to take over and roar, “Don’t poke your sister in the eye!” but I preferred to err on the side of assuming good intentions, calmly block the poking and say, “You see the baby’s eyes. She has blue eyes like you and Daddy.” A toddler is going to be curious about a teeny, tiny creature living in his house and will want to explore in all sorts of different ways (for instance: trying to discover whether her limbs are detachable). I made a point of treating his interest in the baby as just that – interest – and using those moments to model more appropriate interactions, rather than assuming every touch was an act of aggression.
5. Don’t make the baby a downer. My sanity as a parent relies HEAVILY on minimizing the “no”s in our home so that I’m not constantly redirecting unwanted behavior. Unfortunately, with a brand new baby in the house, the number of “no”s went through the roof…and it was frustrating. For both of us. I didn’t want the baby to become the target of that frustration, so I tried to leave her out of my limit setting whenever possible. Instead of, “I won’t let you throw that ball by the baby,” simply asking, “Can you throw the ball to me?”(or, even better, outside!) Instead of, “I can’t let you be in the cradle with the baby,” reminding, “Only one at a time in the cradle, please.” If his sister was the reason I gave for every limit and every redirection, I couldn’t imagine any outcome but resentment.
7. Don’t expect him to like it. Whenever a friend posts a photo of their toddler with their brand new baby brother or sister with a caption reading, “He just LOVES being a big brother,” I can’t help (after rolling my eyes and thinking, “Does he though?”) but wonder why we put so much pressure on our children to become instant besties, as if the feelings they have during that transition are in any way indicative of the relationship they will have long term. Give him permission to feel whatever he feels. He won’t be scared, angry, and overwhelmed forever. I promise.
8. Don’t change the rules. This is one that I learned the hard way. In the days after bringing Babygirl home from the hospital, I found myself wanting to go easy on the Bug because of how guilty I felt. His “acting out” was my fault, so didn’t I owe him a hall pass? I quickly realized, as the behavior started to escalate, that my lenience was actually making the transition harder for him. Every time I let something slide, I was telling him that, in addition to learning this tiny new human, he also needed to learn a whole new set of rules. “I threw my dinner on the floor,” he must have thought, “and SHE JUST GAVE ME MORE!? I don’t understand anything about this family anymore!!”
Limit testing is completely normal after the birth of a sibling. It isn’t about showing frustration or trying to make anyone’s life difficult. It is a toddler’s only way of asking, What else is different now? Keeping this in mind really helped me remain patient (most of the time) in the face of the Bug’s limit testing because it allowed me to see those moments as opportunities to show him that he was safe, I was there with him, and our family was still the same.
As soon as I went back to confidently maintaining the limits that the Bug was used to, I saw a marked difference in his adjustment. He didn’t need me to be permissive; he needed me to be myself. This really was the game changer for us.
9. Believe the people who say it gets easier. It does. And then it gets awesome.
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