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Toddler Tips

From Only Child to Older Sibling

From: NEW BEGINNINGS, Vol. 23 No. 1, January-February 2006, pp. 36-39

"Toddler Tips" is a regular feature of the magazine NEW BEGINNINGS, published bimonthly by La Leche League International. In this column, suggestions are offered by readers of NEW BEGINNINGS to help parents of toddlers. Various points of view are presented. Not all of the information may be pertinent to your family's lifestyle. This information is general in nature, and not intended to be advice, medical or otherwise.


I am expecting a baby and worrying about how my two-year-old will cope with making the transition from being the center of our world to becoming a big brother. He still nurses a lot, particularly at night, and I wonder how I will cope, too. What have other mothers done before the birth to prepare a sibling for the baby's arrival? What can I do after the birth to help my toddler still feel loved and needed?

Mother's Response

I worried about how my two-and-a-half-year-old son would handle the birth of my daughter, so I did three specific things that really helped to ease the transition.

  1. I purchased the book On Mother's Lap from the LLLI Catalogue. It is a very heartwarming book that emphasizes that there is always room on mother's lap. We read this regularly leading up to and after my daughter's birth.
  2. We always called the newborn "our baby," as opposed to "my baby" or "the baby." Toddlers love ownership and my son wanted to take care of the baby since she was his, too.
  3. We tried not to inadvertently "blame" the baby for something he couldn't immediately have. For example, "I can't play right now because our baby is eating." If we would have said things like that, our son might have blamed her, too. Instead, I said, "I'm busy right now, but will play with you soon."

I think that all of these things helped to foster the loving relationship that my children have now, 19 months later.

Cyndy Payne
Lake City MI USA

Mother's Response

Congratulations on expecting your second child! There are several things that I'm glad we did to help our older daughter adjust to her little sister's arrival. Kathryn was 21 months old when Francesca was born.

First, although I didn't want to stop breastfeeding during pregnancy, I knew I didn't want to continue to breastfeed my daughter as often. So, I started the "don't offer, don't refuse" method of cutting back on feedings. That was a big eye-opener. I saw how many breastfeeding sessions I instigated. My husband and I also worked on nighttime weaning in the latter half of my pregnancy.

Second, I made sure to page through NEW BEGINNINGS and THE WOMANLY ART OF BREASTFEEDING with Kathryn and point out the photos of breastfeeding couples saying, "Look, babies need to nurse." I had a friend whose daughter was angry every time the new baby nursed and I was trying to avoid that.

Third, I recognized that the first time I saw Kathryn after the birth she was there to see me, not the new baby. My husband knocked at the door to make sure it was a time when I wasn't holding or breastfeeding Francesca. Then Kathryn came bounding in and crawled up in my bed and we cuddled and nursed. All of a sudden, as if I scripted it, Kathryn pointed to her sister sleeping in the bassinet next to me and said, "Look, mommy, a baby!" I asked her if she wanted to hold the baby and, of course, she did.

Fourth came tandem nursing. I wasn't sure how tandem nursing would work in reality, but it was a lifesaver. Tandem breastfeeding was the best thing I did for both of my children. I believe it is one of the reasons they have such a strong bond with each other, even though the tandem nursing only lasted for about six months. It also allowed me to take a break while they breastfed and to get them to nap at the same time. Looking down, with a child on each breast and the children holding hands and gazing into each other's eyes was a treasure.

It was very hard for me to adjust to having two children. I felt guilty because I was unable to give Kathryn all of my time and attention. I also felt guilty because I wasn't able to give Francesca the undivided attention that I had given Kathryn as a newborn. Give yourself permission to feel each feeling as it comes and goes. Realize that you do not have to be a super woman to be a super mother. Ask for help and take it when it comes.

Sharon Garcia
Houston TX USA

Mother's Response

I was very anxious to ensure that my older child still felt special and loved as we prepared for the arrival of her baby brother. I took her along to antenatal appointments, talked to her about the new baby, and we read lots of books. I felt I had done as much as I could to prepare her, and I was looking forward to tandem nursing. In truth though, it is very difficult to anticipate just how much a new baby will change your current dynamics. We had a very long period of adjustment, which included my placing limits on my older child's breastfeeding. I feel that this contributed to many jealousy problems that I had worked so hard to avoid. However, we did come out of this phase in time, and now my children are great friends.

Try to make a little time each day to spend alone with the older child. And if you do have to deal with resentment and negative comments from the older child about the new arrival, let him or her express these feelings without censure or judgment. This can be hard to do, but it allows the jealous older sibling an opportunity to be himself or herself and to be heard and, with lots of hugs and cuddles thrown in from you, a way of knowing that he or she is still loved.

Sara Walters
Carmarthen Great Britain

Mother's Response

Something my older children particularly enjoyed, both before and after the birth of a younger sibling, was the telling of their own birth story. It usually started with, "I remember when you were born. It was such a special time...." I would give as much information as my little listener seemed to want and even mentioned details like how vigorously they kicked whilst inside ("You were a little kicker, even then!") and going through labor and the delivery ("Daddy held you and then gave you to me"). The best bit was telling about the wonder and joy when I first held them (I always found myself with tears in my eyes here). Each time you tell the story, you can add more, perhaps about their early baby days.

I think that children love their own story because it puts them at the center of attention and reassures them that they are very special to you even though there is another baby on the way or in the house.

Sue Cardus
Coventry Great Britain

Mother's Response

My first child was two-and-a-half when our second was born. One thing that soothed my worries about how my older child would adjust was remembering that children have been making that adjustment for thousands of years! I also found that my older child grew and changed so much in the nine months I was pregnant with his younger brother. He went from being babyish in many ways to being a "big boy" who was better able to communicate and express his needs and feelings. Perhaps that is part of nature's wisdom in having us gestate for the better part of a year!

One thing we did to prepare my first child for the new baby's arrival was talk about how little babies need to breastfeed a lot. My son was still breastfeeding at the time, and we would look at books or pictures of mothers and babies breastfeeding. I explained, "Little babies like to nurse because it gives them good food, and it's a loving thing to do, they like to cuddle."

After our new baby was born, I found nursing times were also times I could nurture my older child. I could read and cuddle with the older brother while the baby breastfed. For us, a sling was invaluable since it allowed me to nurture my little one while still participating in playgroups, preschool field trips, walks to the park with friends, and so on. After some practice, I could breastfeed the baby hands-free while still being hands-on with my older child. As the baby got older and began to nap for longer stretches, this time became treasured moments with my older child when we could play board games or do other "big boy" stuff.

In many ways, there is nothing we can do to prepare an only child for the arrival of a sibling, just as there are certain things about having a baby that we don't really appreciate until he or she is born. But it is encouraging to know that as your family circle grows you can look to friends in LLL and elsewhere to help craft a mothering style that works for you and your family.

Carolyn Hunt
Muncie IN USA

Mother's Response

I can sympathize with your anxiety about having another baby. My three-year-old son, like most youngsters, loves attention all the time. When I became pregnant, I worried about how the new baby would change the relationship we had created. One thing I did that helped was to point out friends' or neighbors' children who were helping a younger sibling. I also bought shirts that said "I am the older brother" and "I am the younger brother" so my oldest child would feel involved and important.

My husband was a huge help, too. He and our first son went to the park, pool, and ran errands together during the two weeks he was off work after the baby was born. This gave me a chance to catch my breath and bond with my newborn without interruptions. This also helped their relationship grow even stronger. Talk to other mothers who have more than one child and have a similar parenting philosophy. LLL meetings are a great place to interact with like-minded mothers! There is also a section in THE WOMANLY ART OF BREASTFEEDING that has good ideas on siblings. In addition, I recognized my older child's feelings by saying, "I know it is hard to share mommy."

There is not one answer to help your two-year-old. The only thing I can say is that the family dynamics will evolve. We were a well-oiled machine and, for the most part, things seemed synchronized. With our second child came a few kinks. We worked them out as they came. This was another learning experience for every member of our family.

Your heart grows with love, but you are still one mother. Take it moment by moment. Week by week, it will get easier. It takes patience on everybody's part. Good luck and always remember to listen to your heart.

Michelle Figga Burgroff

Mother's Response

My daughter was 26 months old when her baby brother was born. She is now three-and-a-half and we have had very few problems. I'm sure some of that is because she's always loved babies, but we also tried to handle the situation with respect for her needs. It was sometimes intense in the early days, but I was able to get through it by reminding myself of the benefits to her of having a sibling.

To begin with, during the pregnancy we involved our daughter as much as possible. She came to the midwife with me and often held the heart rate monitor or simply sat on my legs during the exam. We read books about birth and new babies, and talked about it as much as she wanted to, which was not as much as I'd expected.

During the pregnancy, she developed extreme separation anxiety. It was sometimes awkward for me, but I recognized her need, and simply did everything with her for a while -- including at the birth. A friend of mine came to entertain her and take her out of the room if she wanted to. Instead, she watched the whole thing and was one of the first people to hold her brother (which is now my favorite picture).

She breastfed regularly throughout the pregnancy and afterwards. I highly recommend Hilary Flower's ADVENTURES IN TANDEM NURSING (available from the LLLI Online Store) to give you a good idea of what this involves, and help you feel confident that it's safe (in most cases). I often wondered what I would have done with her if I couldn't breastfeed her after her brother was born. I knew that she never felt displaced, and I never had to worry about her misbehaving to get my attention. She could always have half of me, even if she rarely got all of me anymore.

There were times when she had negative feelings about her brother's arrival. She would talk about throwing him in the trash. I knew that this was normal and healthy, so rather than get upset, I would acknowledge her feelings by saying something along the lines of, "It's hard sometimes to have a new baby, isn't it?" and then mention that if we didn't have him, we wouldn't be able to tickle his toes (or something else she was enjoying about him right then). I didn't like it, but she grew out of it on her own, and now that he's older, they love to play together. She's always teaching him how to do things and gets so excited when he learns something from her.

Other books I'd recommend are Siblings without Rivalry by Adele Faber and Elaine Mazlish, Kids, Parents, and Power Struggles by Mary Sheedy Kurcinka, and Playful Parenting by Lawrence J. Cohen, PhD. I'm not trying to say that it was always easy, or that I'm the perfect parent—far from it. But when I managed to respect and respond to her needs, even when it was uncomfortable for me, things worked out much better.

Ingrid Biery

Mother's Response

Congratulations on your growing family! My second child, Nicholas, was born last March when my nursing toddler, Isabell, was 26 months old. She was and still is a frequent nurser and very attached to me, so I totally understand your concerns. Our goals were for Izzy to feel as though she is a part of a growing family and for our children to have a close bond. What worked for us was to prepare her well.

First, we watched maternity and birth shows almost every day, especially when there was an older sibling involved. The first couple of times it was too intense, but after a week, Izzy would watch the whole show and exclaim at the end, "Look! That mommy's having a messy baby!" It made her want to have a "messy baby" of our own. She got used to the idea that the mother would hurt before the baby came, and she enjoyed making faces and funny sounds when I asked her, "What does a mommy look like when she's having her messy baby?"

We also talked about how we'd share "milks" when we had our messy baby. Izzy decided that my right one was hers and the baby could have the other one. After we had Nicholas, it took a good month before I could breastfeed him on "her milk" without her objecting (I had to hide it a lot!). I helped Izzy understand that Nicholas brought back the milk (I'd dried up during pregnancy), so he got to be a hero. She loves to nurse with her brother, which is hard but beautiful to watch as they giggle and touch each other.

Because she was well prepared and knew what to expect, Izzy was right there with me through labor and the delivery. We hired a doula to help me while daddy hung out with Izzy, who would frequently check in on me and say things like, "It's okay Mommy! It won't hurt long!" Izzy gave Nicholas his first bath (with her daddy's help), and "helped" him breastfeed. We made it clear that we were doing all this together as a family, and that she was wanted and needed every step of the way. We also had a close friend at the birth so Izzy could take play breaks with another toddler when she needed.

The hardest part now is teaching her to wait for the baby, especially while he sleeps. What's really worked, though, is for us to have special activities we can only do while the baby sleeps, such as painting or playing certain games. Combined with tons of praise for being quiet while Nicholas sleeps, this has really helped Izzy to want to let him sleep! We also have special cuddle time for her with one parent at a time.

Finally, there's the obvious bit of letting her help bring diapers and clothes for him. I try not to push it and just make it a fun game for her. She gets lots of praise for helping the family.

Sandra Dettling,
Birmingham AL USA

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