behavior development parenting toddler

How to Help Your Toddler Adjust to a New Baby

Adding a new baby to the family is a big deal for all of you, especially your toddler. In this post, I'm going to share some tips and strategies to help prepare your toddler in building and growing the new relationship with their little sibling.  Here are some tips for BEFORE the baby arrives:

Start sooner rather than later.  So, my biggest tip is that you start your preparation sooner rather than later. The earlier you start, the easier the transition will be for your child.  An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of medicine!

Model interaction with babies.  The first strategy requires that you get your toddler a baby doll set with all the accessories, i.e., bottles, blankets, diapers, and all the things.  You need to model how we interact with babies and the best way to do that is during play.  Talk about feeding and sleeping and all the different things that they will see their new sibling doing as well as how you provide care and safety during those interactions.

And there are many, many benefits to pretend play with baby dolls including increased use and understanding of language, problem solving skills, fine motor skills and most importantly for the purposes of this discussion, the development of empathy and nurturing skills.  Their play with dolls provides the foundation for them to grow into loving and nurturing parents themselves.

Now, I that there are some parents out there who are of the mindset that they don’t want their son playing with baby dolls.  If that is you, I encourage you to put those emotions to the side and allow your child to do this. You want your son to build a great relationship with their new sibling.  They practice and master these skills through play.  It really is an important piece of the process in helping prepare them for being a sibling.

Incorporate baby play into daily routines.  Your toddler’s new sibling is going to be a regular part of daily routines so incorporating play with dolls in those very routines is another great way to prepare your toddler.  Have the baby doll join them in the bathtub encouraging your child to wash it.  Have the baby join breakfast and dinner encouraging your toddler to feed and give it drinks.  The more routines you can incorporate the doll into, the better your child will be prepared. 

Utilizing some mama and baby animal figurines like these can be another way to continue to talk babies in daily routines. Model putting the baby cow to bed showing how the mama cow is gentle, calm and loving.   Continuing the idea of new babies joining families during play provides little ones with a way to better understand what this will look like.  It also allows you a way to continue this theme outside of doll play.  I should add here, that if you toddler wants nothing to do with that baby doll after introducing it, you always want to follow their lead!  If they push it away, honor that communication and follow their lead in play.  You can try to reintroduce it later.  Nothing turns a toddler off more than a parent who doesn’t follow their lead.  We want to keep the interaction going so we can continue the learning.

Introduce the concept of nice hands during play.  One theme that you can incorporate with both the baby doll as well as the farm animals or dinosaurs, is starting introducing the concept of gentle or nice hands during interactions with the baby. Find a phrase that you feel comfortable with and stick with it.  Repetition is important for young kids!   Some parents use ‘nice hands’ or ‘kind hands’ or ‘gentle.’ I personally like ‘nice hands’ because I think nice is an easier thing for young kids to understand as opposed to gentle or kind. Again, do whatever works best for you!

During play with baby doll, teddy bear farm animals, demonstrate and narrate the concept of nice hands during play.  For example, saying ‘Look at the nice hands you're using with your baby doll! You're such a good daddy!’  This allows them to better understand the concept as well as learning that this is highly valued by adults. 

Continuing that theme, you also want to act out and model that same thing during your play as well as during interactions with your child and other people. Saying things like ‘Look, mama is using nice hands while she's washing you during your bath’ or ‘Daddy is using nice hands while hugging me!’  You want them to see this demonstrated during interactions amongst family members, friends, characters on TV or during stories that you may be reading.

Now, conversely, you also want to point out when they are not using nice hands so they can understand the difference.  Saying something like ‘Oh, those are not nice hands -- that hurts the doggy.  Let’s try again with nice hands; mama will help you’ or ‘That seems to hurt the baby. I don't think the baby likes that. Let’s try using nice hands.’  These comments need to be made in a calm and assertive manner.  Our goal is not to shame or embarrass but rather to help them understand the difference between these touches.

I like to use the phrase ‘too much’ or ‘no thank you’ while making a sour face or shaking my head or hands.  Never underestimate the power of body language! If they pause, then I  say ‘Okay, let's try that again!’  Remember, they're still learning about how their body impacts other people. They don't have the ability to have malicious intent yet, so they don't yet realize that some of their touches can be hurtful to other.  We want to be their coach and teacher in these moments.

Read books about welcoming a new baby.  Another tip would be to incorporate stories about the theme of welcoming a baby to your home. Here are some of my favorites:

Incorporate stories such as your daily reading routine, again, always following your child's lead. If they don't want to read the book, we are going to be okay with that.  .

Point out babies out whenever you see them.  Another strategy would be to point out babies everywhere you see them, e.g cartoons, books, the grocery store, etc.  If you have friends or family members with an infant, schedule encouraging your little one to interact while you closely monitor and continue to model and encourage them to try nice hands with the baby.

Provide hands on experiences.  I know some of us get a little nervous with our rambunctious kids around babies as we worry that they're going to be too rough.  Use hand over hand assistance as your child touches the baby saying ‘Mama will help you with nice hands on the baby’ or ‘Oh, look at how you're using such nice hands!’ as you take your child's hand and pat the baby's head or stroke the baby's cheek.

Also, be sure to provide lots of positive feedback when you see your child using nice hands. For example, if they're using nice hands while they're playing with their baby independently or if they're using nice hands while they're touching the cat, be sure to comment something such as ‘Look at you using your nice hands. You're so good at that and the cat loves it so much.’

So always, always take those opportunities to fill their bucket and reaffirm that you are loving what it is that they're doing there.

Practice the concept of Waiting.  The next thing you're going to want to do with your toddler is start practicing the concept of waiting. Not one of toddler’s favorite things to do, but is important as there are sure to be moments when you are not able to do what your toddler wants you to do when they want you to do it.  Here are some different strategies that you can try to help work on waiting.

  • Find a repetitive phrase to use in moments where your child needs to wait. I like to use counting, e.g., ‘mama will be with you in five’ counting backwards slowly.  Even young toddlers can start grasping the idea that when they hear ‘1,’ mom will help them.  Avoid time concepts like ‘5 minutes’ and such…kids don’t REALLY understand time concepts until first grade!  If you are going to use counting, engage your child in it.  Encourage them to count with you saying ‘ Mama will be ready in five. Let's count together. 1, 2, 3, 4, 5. Okay, all done. Now what do you need? How can I help you?’ Maybe you need more time to finish your task.  If that’s the case, count to 10 or 20 for that matter!  The key is to try to get your toddler involved in the counting.  Make it fun by having them jump on each number. 
  • Be consistent. Again, that consistency in the repetition really helps that learning to happen faster and stronger. Use the same phrase EVERY TIME!
  • Use visual cues. When working on the concept of ‘wait,’ I always hold up a finger as a visual cue.  Remember, visual cues are important and help get their attention.   
  • Have a busy box or finger fidgets ready to go. If your toddler isn’t having the idea of counting, try a busy box or finger fidgets.   Sometimes having a few novel items that can be used during routines such as diaper changes or when you have to feed the baby, can distract them allowing you to finish up whatever task it is that you need to with less fuss.
  • Use a visual picture schedule. And finally, consider incorporating a visual picture schedule into your daily routine.  You can learn more about visual picture schedules here.  Visual schedules and routines make kids feel safe. When the baby comes, your little one will feel like everything seems different. A visual picture schedule will help your little one see that the schedule has remained the same.  After the baby comes, you can even add in visuals for 1:1 time with you while the baby sleeps.

The work is certainly not done once the baby arrives!  Here are some tips to help your little one AFTER the baby comes home:

Increase your one-on-one time with your child.  Once the baby is home, you're going to need to increase your one-on-one time with your little one. No if, ands, or buts, they're going to need this during the transition. I know that time is at a premium when the baby comes, but it's really essential that you have several 25 to 30 minute sessions with your little one where they get your undivided attention. I usually suggest to parents that you should have at least two hours a day of one-on-one time with your little one. I know that sounds really, really hard to do!  I get it!  I had two kids and worked full-time as well, but soooo important.  If you happen to have a partner, maybe you can split the 1:1 between the two of you.

I know it's tempting to want to catch up on housework while the baby is down for a nap, but I want you to hear this loud and clear:   Spending that time one-on-one with your toddler will prevent so many difficult behaviors! They need more time and connection during this big transition. So make the time to do several one-on-one DISTRACTION FREE (meaning no phones or screens!) play times with your toddler each day.  Again, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of medicine.

Let them be the boss in play.  And that takes me to the next tip:  While you're doing this floor time play with your toddler, you need to let them be the boss during play.  We want them to have the control – something they often feel deprived of with the newest addition to the family.  As such, we are going to avoid being directive in play.  Rather, you want to ask questions like ‘what do you want me to do with the car? What color crayon should I use? Where should I put this block? Should I put it over here or over here?’ You want them to be the boss. Allowing your child to have control during the play means they are less likely to try to gain control in other ways such as tantrums.   

One note about play:  Kids work out their stress during play so don't be alarmed if you see them starting to show some aggressive and assertive behaviors during that play. Being bossy or saying things like ‘this baby's naughty’ while pretending to spank the baby (even though you've never done that in your house) are just natural ways that our kids use to work out all of these emotions that they're feeling.

So don't judge what you're seeing!  And don’t feel the need to say things such ‘Oh you're being so hard to that baby. Why are you doing that? That's not nice.’  Instead, we want to interpret and clarify what we are seeing, e.g., ‘You look really mad at that baby.’   This let’s them know that their feelings are okay and that it is safe for them to express them with you without judgment or dismissal. Validating and identifying their emotions will help them learn to better regulate those emotions down the road.

Have your child join in with the care of the baby.  Invite your child to be a part of the care of their new sibling.  Your toddler can, with your support and guidance, help with feeding the baby, tucking the baby in, diaper changes and more.  Including them in the care helps them to feel seen and heard rather than an outsider

I know we worry that they may drop the baby or be rough with the baby, but be there to support them through that. Help them hold the bottle while reinforcing the concepts of nice hands. 

If your little one doesn't want to hold their sibling, this is a great time to get out their baby doll set. You can say something like ‘Oh, it's time for us to feed the baby. They're crying. Go get your baby and I'll go get sissy and let's get to work.’ Have them be involved sitting next to you on the couch feeding the babies. Keep them engaged by asking questions such as ‘Is your bottle warm enough, do you think? Do you think she's full?’  Besides the connection with you and their sibling, this is a great opportunity to work on language and following directions

Now, if your little one doesn't want to have anything to do with holding the baby or playing with their babies at the same time that you're doing duties with the baby, you can involve them in other ways.  For example, encourage them to sing to the baby while feeding. Or perhaps have them read a story while you're bathing the baby.  You can have them show the baby three of their favorite toys and tell them all about them during diaper changes.  The key is to try to keep them engaged during the process.

Finally, if your toddler has no interest in any of that preferring to go off and do their own thing, that's fine. The goal here is to try to find ways to build connection in those moments where they need it shaping it in a way that works for them, for us and for the new baby.

Wear the baby!  Another tip, wear your new baby! I am blown away by the new slings that that they've come out with. Where were they when my kids were little? Wearing your baby is a a win-win: It allows you to have the baby close so that they're feeling your warmth and security, but it allows you to have free hands to be able to play with and interact with your toddler.

Share control by giving choices frequently throughout the day to your child.  One of my all time favorite strategies to use with toddlers is to give choices throughout the day.  It allows us to share control and, again, they're going to be feeling like they don't have much with this new being taking away mom and dad's time and energy. So give your toddler frequent choices throughout the day about things that you really don't care about.  For example, ‘Do you want to wear red socks or blue socks? Do you want to use a spoon or a fork? Napkin or a paper towel?’  You get the picture.  Kids who get choices all throughout the day are less likely to have tantrums, meltdowns and engage and power struggles with their family. So, use choices to your advantage during this process implementing before the baby arrives!

Utilize the power of sensory play.  Another tip is to give your toddler lots and lots of sensory input. I'm talking about heavy work. I've got a whole video on this that you can watch here.   Toddlers are busy!  They get rambunctious and often want to roughhouse with us while we're holding on to the baby. Give them big doses of heavy work by getting them outside, running them around the yard, have them climb up and down the slide or jump on the trampoline.   Giving them large bouts of heavy work throughout the day will allow them to be better able to control their bodies and to be gentle with their new sibling.

Be patient.  And finally, I think this goes without saying, you’ve got to be patient with your toddler. Look at it from their perspective: They have gone from being the center of your universe to being an outlying planet, right? This is a major shift and very, very confusing for them. It’s going to take time for them to respond to and understand what it means to be as a sibling.  Not to mention what their new role means in relation to you So, be patient and encouraging.

Okay, those are my tips for preparing your toddler for a new baby!  Whew, that was a lot of information!  I hope you found it helpful.  If you have any questions about these tips, please feel free to reach out to me here.  I’m always happy to answer your questions!

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