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Parenting -- New baby: helping toddlers and preschoolers adjust

Key points

  • When a new baby arrives, young children often feel excited but also left out.

  • Children might express their feelings about new siblings through challenging behaviour.

  • It can help to give children plenty of attention and involve them in baby care.

  • Children might be curious about breastfeeding or want to be nearby when the baby is feeding.


Helping toddlers and preschoolers feel positive about a new baby

When a new baby comes, young children might feel you’re giving all your attention and love to the new baby. If you can be sensitive to these feelings, listen and show plenty of affection, it shows your other children you’re still there for them. It also helps them feel secure.

Spending one-on-one time with your other children is a good way to do this. If you have a partner, you and your partner can make time for your other children by taking turns caring for the new baby. And even when you’re busy with the baby, you can let your other children know they’re important by doing special things with them. For example, you might have a special song you can sing together or a special bedtime book.

You can also look for opportunities for your other children to have extra time with close family members or friends, perhaps by going to the park or doing a special activity together.

It also helps to let your children get familiar with the new baby. For example, you could let them gently touch their new sibling when you’re there to supervise. Or you could involve your children in caring for the baby. For example, at bath time your children could get some bath things ready or help dry the baby afterwards.

Sometimes you can use this time with the baby to show your older children warmth, praise and attention. For example, if your older child is gentle or helpful, you could say something like, ‘Emmett is very lucky to have you as a big brother – you’re so helpful’.

And if you also explain to your other children that they don’t have to do too much, it helps to keep things fun and positive. For example, let them know that the grown-ups will take care of things when the baby cries in the night.

All your children need warm and loving relationships and time with you to grow and develop well. You can build and strengthen your relationship with your other children by giving them plenty of positive attention. This helps them feel safe and secure. It also shows them how you’d like them to treat each other.

Breastfeeding and your other children

If the new baby is breastfeeding, it can help to think about how your other children might respond to this. They’re likely to be curious about breastfeeding and they might want to watch. They might also want to be near mum or even climb into mum’s lap during breastfeeding.

It’s also common for toddlers and even preschoolers to ask for a breastfeed at some point. There’s no right or wrong in this situation.

It might help to know that children who are no longer breastfed will find the experience too strange to try more than once and won’t be interested in more than a quick experiment.

But if you’d prefer that your older child doesn’t try breastfeeding, you can explain that breastmilk is made especially for babies, then offer a special drink or snack babies can’t have. You or your partner could also distract your child with another activity, or even offer a taste of breastmilk from a cup.

You can also make breastfeeding a special time for all your children. Here are some ideas:

  • While the baby is feeding, give your children a favourite toy, activity or task. You might like to keep a special box of toys aside for them to enjoy during breastfeeding.

  • If your other children are watching, explain that breastfeeding is a natural part of life. You can tell your children how the milk helps the baby grow strong and healthy.

  • If your other children want to be close to mum during breastfeeding, they could cuddle up while mum or partner tells a story, reads a book or sings a song.

  • During breastfeeding, try playing your other children’s favourite music or some recorded children’s stories, and listening with your other children.

  • If you’re not the breastfeeding mum, use breastfeeding as a chance to have some special time with your other children. For example, it could be a good time for a trip to the park, a board game or a craft activity.

Challenging behaviour after a new baby arrives: how to handle it

It’s common for toddlers and preschoolers to behave in challenging ways during a new baby’s first year of life. Challenging behaviour can be a way of expressing big feelings, like confusion about new family relationships, fear of being left out or the desire for more attention.

For example, this behaviour might include:

  • crying, yelling and even asking for the baby to be sent back

  • going back to behaving like a baby – for example, forgetting toilet training, needing help when eating or dressing, or wanting to be rocked to sleep

  • refusing to nap or go to bed and waking during the night

  • being angry around the new baby.

Tips for dealing with challenging behaviour You can guide your children towards better behaviour and give them the attention they need by:

  • giving them a lot of praise for good behaviour

  • telling your children how much they’ve learned and grown since they were babies

  • involving children in caring for the new baby – this encourages them to see themselves as big sisters or brothers who help look after the little one

  • helping children express their feelings through play – messy play, puppet play, drawing and music are all good ways for children to work through emotions

  • staying calm – this helps your child manage their own feelings and reactions.




References:

American Academy of Pediatrics (2014). Caring for your baby and young child: Birth to age 5 (6th edn) (Eds S.P. Shelov & T.R. Altmann). New York: Bantam Books.

Dağcioğlu, B.F. (2018). The effects of the new baby on the older sibling. Ankara Medical Journal, 18(3), 286-299. doi: 10.17098/amj.461653.

Kramer, L., & Gottman, J.M. (1992). Becoming a sibling: With a little help from my friends. Developmental Psychology, 28(4), 685-699.

Kramer, L., & Ramsburg, D. (2002). Advice given to parents on welcoming a second child: A critical review. Family Relations, 51(1), 2-14. doi: 10.1111/j.1741-3729.2002.00002.x.

Kuo, P.X., Volling, B.L., Gonzalez, R., Oh, W., & Yu, T. (2017). Chapter VII. Developmental trajectories of children’s emotional reactivity after the birth of a sibling. Monographs of the Society for Research in Child Development, 82(3), 93. doi: 10.1111/mono.12313.

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