Walking along the frozen aisle at Coles, a woman stops next to us in front of the vegetables. “Oh, how far along are you?”. “7 months” I reply. She beams at my daughter looking at her suspiciously “how exciting! You’re going to be a big sister. Make sure you help Mummy look after her”.
This happened often when I was pregnant with my second child. And while these strangers were lovely and well meaning, as a psychologist and parenting coach, I knew that if I left it there, there was a good chance I’d be setting my toddler up to struggle.
Would being a big sister be exciting? Sure. AND there was no doubt it was going to be really tough sometimes too. Having a new sibling is a huge change for a toddler who is used to having their parents all to themselves. When the baby arrives, Mum and Dad are usually sleep deprived and less patient, there is a lot less individual attention, much of the day revolves around the baby’s sleeping and feeding times, and toddlers are often asked be quiet when the baby is napping. The rhythm of the day changes, babies cry a lot, and visitors that once doted on the toddler are often distracted by the newest addition.
So what can we do to help with this transition? Thankfully, quite a lot.
The first is to manage expectations. When someone said how exciting it would be for my daughter to be a big sister, I used to say “so exciting!…. and a little tricky too”. I did this because I wanted my daughter to have permission to feel lots of things when the new baby arrived – excited and loving but also frustrated and jealous. That way when she did feel something other than pure joy, she didn’t feel like she was bad or that something was wrong or that it was her fault (the default of our toddler’s perfectly developmentally appropriate tendency to think everything is about them). We read stories about siblings having a tricky time (like ‘Too busy sleeping’ by Zanni Louise), and I told her stories from my own childhood illustrating how new babies are fun and a lot of work too. I told her how love grows and grows when new people come into our lives, so actually there is more love to go around, not less. She was not quite 2 years old. Did she understand all of this? I doubt it. But I know that some of it sunk in, and all I was doing was normalising it for her… just like I normalise that becoming a mum is simultaneously hard and amazing and energising and exhausting to pregnant friends.
The second thing we can do is have realistic expectations of our toddlers when the baby arrives. It is completely normal for toddlers go through a period of regression and aggression. Toddlers that might have been determined to be independent, might suddenly see the benefit of being a baby. They might use a baby voice or pretend to cry, ask to be fed, and require a lot more help than usual. This is so hard when you have a new baby that is completely dependent on you, but try to be patient. They are not attention seeking, they are connection seeking. I have seen so many times how putting too much pressure on our toddler to be “the big kid” often backfires. The more we can fill that cup, the quicker the toddler tends to get back on track.
Increased aggression is also normal, and almost always passes. Often it is part of the toddler’s grief that the old life pre baby is now gone. As mums, we often feel that grief too (which does not mean we love the new baby any less of course). Your new role as a full time bodyguard is tiring, and this is a very good time to remind yourself that this intense need for constant supervision will pass (even though sometimes it doesn’t seem that way!). Stopping your child before they hit or kick the baby is obviously ideal, but chances are you won’t be able to do this every time. While we need to be firm “it’s not ok to hit your brother/sister”, punishing your toddler for not being able to control their emotions is like punishing them for not being able to pronounce words correctly. Emotional regulation is a skill that requires practice, patience (from us, their coaches), and brain development. It will take years for them to be able to master it. How long the period of aggression or regression is depends on your child’s temperament, their age, their developmental stage, and of course, how we deal with the behaviour.
It also helps to manage your expectations of how much your child will love the baby. Just as some adults are gushier and more affectionate than other adults, the same is true of children. Give it time and be prepared for the fact that this will often change as both the children grow. The older child might love it when they can play peek a boo with the baby and get a reaction, and they might go through a trickier period when the suddenly mobile baby bashes down their precious creations. There are things we can do to help this relationship, but that’s a whole separate blog post (watch this space!). For now, just be patient and don’t push too hard. As always, a toddler is brilliant at being able to tell when we have an agenda, and feels naturally inclined to push against that!
Finally, it will help our toddler (and the whole family enormously) if you can have realistic expectations of yourself. Having a new baby and a toddler is amazing and beautiful… and it’s really challenging. While you had a lot more time to rest when you only had the one baby, a baby’s nap time often becomes the chance to have 1:1 time with your toddler. There’s also a mountain more washing and cleaning to do, and there’s less time to rest and recover from childbirth. Try to lower your expectations of everyone in the house, take short cuts (sending gratitude here to UberEats and supermarket delivery services) and above all be kind to yourself. A crying baby is challenging for pretty much all mums. Add a crying toddler to the mix and it’s easy to feel like you are failing.
This amazing, fun, exhausting, heartbreaking, heart expanding stage will pass, and you’ll miss it…. One day.
For more help on navigating the tricky world of toddlers and preschoolers, follow @greenbearmums on Instagram or check out the Happier Mums, Happier Toddlers course at greenbearmums.com.