Adjusting to a baby in the family can be difficult for toddlers, who are still trying to understand their own place in the world. But there are ways you can help them handle their emotions and feel more confident in their new role of big sibling.
Parents may want their young learners working on early math and reading skills, but teachers often have a different set of goals. Sitting still, paying attention and getting along with others are key to later success in school.
When Paula Costa gave birth to a baby girl a few months ago, she expected her son, Alec, 2, to have a hard time adjusting. But she didn't expect him to take his aggression out on her.
"Initially, he wasn't interested in the baby, but he'd have tantrums with me," says Costa, of Glen Ridge, NJ. "He would get really ornery and say, 'I want milk.' When I gave him milk, he'd say, 'No, I wanted juice!' Then he'd say that the cup was wrong. He'd create situations where there was no way to please him."
Defiance and aggression are common reactions for toddlers who have suddenly become a big brother or sister and found their worlds turned upside down. "They don't know what's going to happen to them, and they have a lot of anger and grief over what they've lost," says Tovah P. Klein, a psychologist and the director of the Barnard Center for Toddler Development in New York City. "If the kids are showing affection to the baby, they're probably falling apart somewhere else.
If giving you a hard time is your toddler's way of expressing his feelings, that's a good thing. His acting out makes it easier for him to deal with the changes -- and for you to address his concerns. "You can say, 'I know you want that baby to go away, but I still love you,'" according to Klein. But you don't have to wait until your toddler is losing it before you can calm his fears. Here are some things you can do, before the baby comes and after, to help his transition to big sibling.
Lay it all out Explain to your toddler what will happen when the baby comes. Say, "Daddy and I will go to the hospital and the doctor will help me with the baby, and then I'll be back. Grandma and Grandpa will take care of you until we get home."
Remember No. 1 Try to focus all the attention on your older child in the very beginning. Give him a small gift at the hospital from the baby and avoid saying things like, 'Remember, now you're the big brother.' Instead say, 'Your brother's here and he's looking for you."
Enlist his help When you bring the baby home, try to make your toddler a part of the baby experience. Costa says her son, Alec, likes to help with diapering and bathing his baby sister. "It makes him feel good to help out," she says.
Make extra time To be sure, there will come a time when your child will say, "I don't want the baby." Just say, "OK, I'm going to put her to sleep and then spend some time with you." It's important to label what you're doing so your child knows it's her special time. Even taking five minutes to read a book with her is helpful. "Say, 'this is mommy and big kid time now,'" says Klein. "The message is, 'I always love you.'"
TIP:Give Them a Role to Play
Before the baby is born, help your toddler make signs to put around the house that will make him feel important, and more secure, in his role of big sibling: "This is where my new baby will sleep." "This is where I will feed my new baby." "This is where I will give my new baby a bath."
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Jacqueline Mrozis a freelance journalist who has worked as an editor and children's book columnist for The Bergen Record and written for Parents magazine.<