Mindful Emotion Coaching
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Rebecca Chicot PhD
Child development expert with a Phd from Cambridge University. She has worked on several best-selling books and BBC documentaries. She is the proud mother of three children.
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Stage 6 – preschool

Sibling rivalry

The age gap between siblings is often around 18 to 24 months. That logically means that there are many toddlers with newborn baby brothers or sisters. In some ways, this is a tough time for a child to accept and love a new baby because they are still so little themselves. However, the good news is that there are lots of things you can do to lay the groundwork for a good transition from toddler to toddler plus one.
In Short
Your toddler will have lots of mixed emotions about the arrival of a new baby - from excitement and pride to fear and anger.

Your toddler is likely to show signs of jealousy and confusion, as she will be both happy and sad at the new arrival.

It's not uncommon for toddlers to display anger and disappointment towards their parents.

Common behaviours include – tantrums, aggressive behaviour towards baby, regression with sleeping and potty training, and reverting to baby like behaviour generally.

Take time to prepare for the arrival, explain that a new baby is coming and what will happen during the birth.

Read stories to your toddler about new babies and about being an older brother or sister to help them get used to the idea.

They can also help out with preparing nursery rooms and clothes.

Show toddlers the scans and explain how the baby is growing.

How will my toddler feel about their new brother or sister?

Your toddler will have lots of mixed emotions about the arrival of a new baby – from excitement and pride, to fear and anger. If your toddler was your first child, she is used to being an only child and the centre of attention.

If she’s not the oldest she will have got used to being the baby of your family. Now she’s about to be usurped by an arguably cuter new model – judging by the attention the arrival of her new brother or sister elicits in the adults in her life. She’s been your baby her entire life and has never known anything else.

The change for her when a new baby arrives will be nothing short of monumental – someone once described it as like not only finding out that your partner is having an affair but that his mistress is moving in for life. I don’t say this to panic you but to prepare you for when your toddler displays a less than loving reaction to their new baby brother or sister.

That is – it’s absolutely normal and understandable behaviour!

Each toddler will react differently. This will depend on her temperament, the family dynamics and the age gap between her and the new baby. Even if your toddler doesn’t behave in a particularly negative way they might feel a whole raft of negative emotions that they will struggle to articulate including:

  • Jealousy and resentment towards the baby.
  • Confusion with a mixture of both excitement and sadness about the new arrival.
  • Anger and disappointment towards her parents.
Common behaviour in toddlers with a new sibling

Although your toddler will have a very strong inner emotional world she cannot yet articulate and express how she’s feeling, so don’t be surprised if she displays some behaviour that hints at her inner ‘turmoil’. Classic sibling jealousy behaviours include:

  • Being baby-like, e.g., trying to breastfeed, crawling, pretend ‘babyish’ crying.
  • More tantrums.
  • Physical aggression towards you and sometimes towards the baby (you need to supervise your toddler when they are with your baby at all times. She won’t yet understand the implications of hurting the baby).
  • Disruptive or attention-seeking behaviours.
  • They might ‘internalise’ their feelings and display more sadness and anxiety.
  • Regression in sleeping behaviour and using the potty etc.

The good news is that with your help and the help of everyone around you these natural feelings will pass rather than become an ongoing problem.

Preparing your toddler for the baby’s arrival

There is a lot you can do to help your toddler feel ready and positive about your baby’s arrival:

  • Explain to your toddler while you are pregnant she will have a new baby sister or brother.
  • It’s best not to insist she will love the new baby or aggressively announce that baby boys are just as fun as baby girls…as this can lead to a confrontational style of discussion about the baby and your toddler may become very stubborn and contrary.
  • Explain that with a new baby comes disruption. One of the best ways to do this is by reading a book that illustrates (hopefully with charm and comedy) what it means to have a new baby around, e.g., ‘Topsy and Tim: The New Baby’.
  • Prepare your toddler for the practical changes that will occur around the birth. For example, “Granny will come and look after you while I am at the hospital giving birth but you will be back with us soon”.
  • Read stories about being a big brother or sister – anything that shows how rewarding and enriching it can be.
  • If you’re moving your toddler into a separate room so the baby can sleep in your room – do this well in advance so she doesn’t associate the new baby with being ‘ejected’ from your room. If possible try to make this a big of a rite of passage with new bedding and bedroom furniture. If you have the time and energy, you can even decorate their new bedroom wall with their pictures…. something to make it exciting.
  • Don’t try potty training around the time of the arrival of the new baby. Either do it well in advance or wait until everything has settled again.
  • Get your toddler involved by taking her along to scans, choosing a name (maybe a second name!) and buying new baby clothes.
  • When the baby is born, praise your toddler in all her attempts to help.
  • Get your toddler a baby doll as a present from their baby brother or sister. This will put your baby in a good light and your toddler can also buddy up with you so that you and your toddler can, e.g., carry your babies in a sling, bathe the babies or dress them together.
  • Instill some early big brother or big sister responsibility by buying a present with your toddler for the new baby – something small that they choose and can bring into the hospital when they visit.
  • Along with the arrival of the new baby present buy your toddler something they’ve wanted for a while – e.g., a tea set, something fun just for them, that feels quite ‘grown-up’.
  • Have some new toys and books (hit the charity shops!) to give your toddler lots of new stimulation for those inevitable times when you have to focus on your new baby.
In the case of a prolonged hospital stay

New mums with a toddler at home can feel torn and upset if they remain in the hospital for longer than a day or so. If your baby is in NICU or SCUBU have your toddler visit you frequently in the hospital and, if appropriate, meet the baby.

Use the visit to allow the person who brought your toddler along to cuddle the new baby. This means you can spend this precious time with your toddler. Obviously, you may need to feed your newborn but try to have your toddler as the centre of your attention.

Bringing home the new baby from hospital

Your toddler will probably be more excited to see you than the new baby when you return from the hospital. She may have never spent a night without you before and will need a big reunion and lots of reassurance. Try to have Grandma or someone else bring the baby inside so you can get down to your toddler’s level and reunite.

This may take several minutes, and when you judge the time to be right, you can introduce your baby to your toddler, e.g., this is your big sister and then ‘show’ the baby to your toddler, so she is the focus of the interaction (your baby won’t care either way).

As your toddler gets used to the new baby, remember she is little and egocentric so put your baby in the context of your toddler, e.g., show them photos of your toddler as a newborn, exclaim that you both have the same nose. Explore the baby together in a loving and gentle way, e.g., ask your toddler to count how many toes her new baby brother or sister has. In general, try and relate as much as you can to them.

Getting support from extended family with new baby and toddler

In a survey carried out by Essential Parent, 90% of parents lived over 10 miles away from their extended family and the average age gap between children for those that had more than one child was around two years.

All new mums need lots of support from family and friends. This is, even more, the case if you have a toddler too so try to have family and friends help. If it’s a favourite aunt, your toddler will be thrilled if they can go out on a trip with them. Similarly, it can help if you get a family member to occasionally look after the baby while she naps during the day so that you can take your toddler out or just have some special time with her. This will only be possible if someone can come over at short notice and just as quickly call you back if your baby wakes up and needs a feed. However, if this is possible just popping out to the park or playing in the garden can be a lovely one-to-one experience.

Visitors to the new baby

Remind visiting family and friends that it will help your toddler if they don’t go all gooey eyed over the baby and ignore your toddler in the clamour to see the new baby.

One thing that I found helpful was to totally shift the focus to Fay and make sure that everyone around did the same. So Ivan was always introduced as Fay’s new baby brother and when people visited they would ask Fay to show them her new baby brother.
Real mum story. Katie, mum to Fay 20 months.

Ask close friends and family to bring a little gift for your toddler, especially if they are planning to come armed with presents for the baby.

All these suggestions will help to make this transition with the new baby smoother and more joyful. However, you will need to be prepared for some sticky moments with your toddler, and this is just a sign that she loves you and cherishes the bond she has with you to her very core. This may be difficult to remember when you are on the receiving end of tantrums, bad behaviour and babyish regressions. Your toddler will suddenly feel very big and grown up compared to your brand new baby but they are still a baby inside, and they need lots of reassurance, patience, cuddles and unconditional love.

Coping with a toddler and a baby

It is very common that your first child will graduate to toddlerhood around the time you have a new baby. Age gaps of between 12 and 36 months are very common. This means that you don’t just have a toddler to contend with but a baby too. It’s exhausting even to think about meeting the needs of these two uniquely needy phases of life. I salute all parents simultaneously looking after a babe in arms and a toddler round the ankles.

In fact, close age gaps would probably have been much rarer in our Palaeolithic past because longer exclusive breastfeeding (until 2-4 years) would have exerted a natural contraceptive effect.

I think that toddlers benefit from having a baby brother or sister around. Life slows down with a baby and toddlers are much less scheduled. Whilst both you and your toddler will at times be frustrated by the added needs of your new baby, you can learn to be very good at looking after both children. For example, you can learn to breastfeed with the rugby hold so you can share a book with your toddler.

What you lose in energy you can make up for in losing that focus on one child. This tends to materialise as a more relaxed attitude to your children. For example, I think ‘Baby-Led Weaning’ could be renamed ‘I have a newborn baby’ weaning. Gone are the perfect lump free purees introducing different vegetables every 72 hours, replaced by mountains of crushed potatoes and greens plonked on your toddler’s plate.

With a toddler and a baby, you will sometimes feel like you need to clone yourself so that you can, e.g., give your baby a massage and a feed and cuddle and read your toddler a story at bedtime. It’s exhausting.

I recommend an ‘order of events’ routine around these pressure points in the day and also teamwork with your partner. Try to start these routines at the same time every day. It just makes everything easier for you and easier to process and learn for your toddler. Routines also always need to go in the same order – that fast tracks the understanding for your toddler and reassures them.

Toddlers do not need hundreds of scheduled events like swimming and ballet class to thrive. A slow walk, chatting to you and holding your hand, with your baby sleeping in a soft sling will be probably more enriching and compelling to them.

I was so worried about how Harry would feel when the new baby came, but when Archie was born I hate to admit it, but my mind was just full of Archie. Harry seemed big and old and for about 72 hours I just transferred all my focus onto this new baby. I was glad I was in the hospital recovering from a c-section as it meant I could just be with Archie and I only saw Harry once a day. Then I came home and slowly got used to loving both my boys.
Real mum story, Sally mum to Harry 22 months and Archie 10 weeks.
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This article is for information only and should not be used for the diagnosis or treatment of medical conditions. Essential Parent has used all reasonable care in compiling the information from leading experts and institutions but makes no warranty as to its accuracy. Consult a doctor or other health care professional for diagnosis and treatment of medical conditions. For details click here.