Q&A: How can I help my toddler adjust to the new baby?
My daughter, Alexandria, is a bright 21-month-old. She is already speaking in four-word sentences and has an excellent vocabulary. However, she is not adjusting well to our new son, who is 3 weeks old. She often treats him like a toy, striking or pulling at him. I am having to scold and push her away from him. Alexandra has had many changes in the past months: we moved, she is now home with me instead of at her babysitter's, (my aunt, whom she loves), and I had a complicated delivery and in the hospital for nine days. Please help.
First let me congratulate you on the new addition to your family, and then reassure you that despite your daughter’s seemingly less-than-warm welcome, her behavior towards your newborn son is not unusual. Better yet, I can all but guarantee you that it won’t last forever.
Most parents I know worry about how their second child will be accepted by their firstborn. How children respond can vary significantly from one child to the next, and also depends on how old the first is when the second is born. Let’s start by considering that at only 21 months old, your daughter is still quite young, but also sounds like she’s quite bright. The average 2-year-old typically uses simple phrases and 2- to 4-word sentences—a developmental milestone your daughter sounds like she’s more than mastered.
At the same time that children master these much-anticipated language milestones, however, they also tend to reach some important social and emotional milestones. Some will make you proud, such as when 2-year-olds imitate behaviors of adults and older children and are excited by the company of other (same or older-age) children. Other 2-year-old milestones include becoming increasingly independent and defiant, as well as showing signs of separation anxiety. While entirely normal, this newly discovered independence and defiance often causes toddlers to develop some undesirable and socially unacceptable behaviors. Additionally, as you point out, changes in a toddler’s surroundings, family, home and/or routine can all be quite unsettling and, not surprisingly, also lead to some challenging behaviors.
In your case, your daughter’s treatment of your son is certainly understandable, given all of your family’s recent changes. However, rather than getting upset, scolding her and pushing her away, I suggest you consider your two important roles—the first to keep your newborn safe, and the other to teach your daughter what is and isn’t acceptable. With respect to keeping babies safe from their toddler siblings, I always make sure parents know that:
- They should never leave the two alone together unsupervised, even for a minute. Even without any intent to do harm, it’s all too easy for a toddler to inquisitively push, pull, prod, or poke in such a way as to put a baby at risk for serious injury.
- Teach your toddler that nothing except a breast, bottle, or pacifier should ever be put in a newborn’s mouth, and even those are only to be offered by mom, dad, or other adult caregivers.
- Make sure that you have a protected spot such as a crib where you can put your baby safely out of the reach of your toddler for naps and nighttime. Remember to factor in whether your older child is able to climb, open doors, or otherwise access your newborn when you’re not in the room.
As for how to teach an older toddler how to “be nice,” simply approach it as you would with any other learning experience:
- Be consistent in telling toddlers “no” when they do something inappropriate.
- If interested, let toddlers feel more important and involved in the family’s new routine by assisting in tasks such as running to get a clean diaper, get a baby blanket, sing to the baby, etc.
- Try to find some quality alone time to spend with older child(ren) once a new baby arrives. While parents of newborns are guaranteed to be busy, making time to simply spend a little one-on-one time reading a couple of books with an older sibling can go a long way towards reassuring them that they are still loved, and decreases the likelihood of acting out and/or resentment.
- I often find that telling older siblings they get to be in charge of protecting their new baby sibling makes them feel important. By telling them to make sure that everyone who comes to visit washes their hands, and that no-one ever puts anything near their baby’s face (or in his eyes, nose, ears, or mouth), you can reinforce important safety rules without always having to say “no.” Just be aware that you can never trust young children to follow these rules, much less enforce these rules without direct supervision.