I once heard a comedian ask his audience, “Do you know what causes sibling rivalry?”
His punch line: “The birth of a second child.”
As it turns out, the joke is as accurate as it is funny. One of the toughest tasks parents face is managing sibling rivalry, particularly when the older child is still just a toddler.
After all, how do you tell your toddler that you’re going to be busy with a new baby when it wasn’t so long ago that he was a baby himself? Furthermore, how do you explain to him that your preoccupation with the baby doesn’t mean he’s not every bit as important to you as he always was?
The truth is, you don’t. It’s unrealistic to expect a child of 2 or 3 to fully understand your explanation of the situation. Instead, you have to show him how much he matters to you. As is so often the case, actions speak louder than words.
Over the years, I have collected many ideas about managing sibling rivalry when brothers and sisters are at this young age. Below, I have listed six tips that parents should find helpful as they and their toddler adjust to the new dynamics created by the new arrival.
1. Before the big event, read stories about babies to your toddler.
Young children learn best from stories. Hearing about babies and their older siblings helps put your child in a better position to understand the changes she can expect. Stories also encourage her to open up to you if she feels sad or upset after the baby arrives.
2. An involved dad can soothe a toddler’s jealousy.
As the birth of the new baby approaches, it’s wise for dad to begin assuming more responsibility for caring, nurturing and just having fun with the older child. This will be soothing for your toddler when baby arrives. Dad plays a very important role in another way: By taking care of the baby, he frees mum up to focus her attention on her older child. Such paternal involvement eases a toddler’s jealousy; wives whose husbands don’t take an active role with both children are bound to have a harder time in this regard.
3. Extended family members should extend themselves, too.
Of course, not everyone has relatives living nearby. But if you’re fortunate enough to have extended family available, they can help with your toddler. By having the oldest spend time with relatives, your child feels like he’s number one again.
4. Encourage visitors to pay attention to your toddler.
When they come to meet the new baby, ask guests to fuss over your oldest, too. Sensitive to the toddler’s situation, some may take the initiative themselves, even bringing a gift for her so she doesn’t feel neglected. However, if you think any of them may overlook your toddler in their rush to see your newborn, gently remind them that she would appreciate some attention as well.
5. Verbalize your toddler’s feelings.
Put into words what you think she’s feeling but may not be expressing. If you see her pouting, you know her well enough to sense why she’s upset. Say something such as, “I think you’re sad because we haven’t had much time to play together today.” Acknowledge your child’s feelings, give her a hug and make some plans to have fun.
6. Don’t become upset if your toddler regresses.
It’s not unusual for a toddler to respond to a new baby by acting like a baby himself. Sometimes that means he’ll experience bathroom problems, or he’ll want a dummy or bottle. When you notice this behaviour, say something like, “Let’s pretend you’re still my baby.” Then, pick him up, rock him and maybe even offer him a bottle—or a pretend bottle, if you prefer. That way, even if only for a mument, your toddler feels like your baby again. It will amaze you how much he’ll appreciate this. After a few minutes, gently tell him that it’s time for him to be a big boy.
I hope you find these tips useful in helping your toddler adjust to the new baby. With careful planning, and cooperation from your spouse, you can guide your toddler through this challenging time.
Our parenting advice is given as suggestions only. We recommend you also consult your healthcare provider, and urge you to contact them immediately if your question is urgent or about a medical condition.