Help Your Toddler Bond with the New Baby

By Naomi Aldort, author of Raising Our Children, Raising Ourselves

**Originally published in the Spring 2008 New Baby issue of The Journal of API

Siblings“Mommy, why do you need another Yonatan?” asked my first-born, looking at my growing belly. I hugged him and said, “I do not need another Yonatan. There is no other Yonatan. You are the only ‘you’ there will ever be, and I love you so much.”

No matter how much we explain and include a young child in welcoming his new sibling, he will not comprehend this concept any more than you would welcome another lover for your spouse.

In an extended family, the situation is a lot easier, as mom is not the only caregiver. In the nuclear family, a seven-year-old would happily welcome a new baby as a wonderful addition, but a toddler or a young child who is still seeing himself as the needy one will have a lot of inner turmoil and needs your reassurance that he is still your darling child.

It is not possible to eliminate the experience that comes with a new baby, and there is nothing wrong with it. Instead, the goal is to help your child be powerful in the face of such a giant transition.

You won’t always be able to provide everything your child wants, but you can always stay connected, loving, and affirming of his feelings and his emotional strength. Go with him on his path as a loving guide climbing a steep and exciting mountain. He can climb it if you believe he can and if he can fully express himself along the way.

Jealousy and Playful Healing

The motionless baby is non-threatening to the child. As soon as the little one crawls, the real shock settles in, “This is another person who gets in my way, gets Mom and Dad’s attention, and wants things that I want.”

The child, whose former position as the only one in your arms is gone forever, can feel anxious and helpless or excited and powerful, depending on your attitude. At some point, she is likely to annoy or try to hurt the baby, either playfully or as an expression of a desire to rid herself of the new invader.

When you notice these budding anxieties, recognize her need and avoid moralizing or giving her the impression that the baby is more important than she. You can validate her feelings saying, “You love snatching the toy out of her hands and hearing her scream,” or, if you think she misses connecting with you, “Do you sometimes wish to be with me all alone again, without the baby?”

Listen to your child, and make time to be with him and to let him know how much you cherish being with him alone. You can also tell him, “When I hold the baby, I love you. It doesn’t matter what and who I hold. I always love you.”

Power Games

Snatching-toy games may be harmless and enjoyed by the baby as much as by the older child. If the baby is frustrated, protect him by providing another way for your child to play the “snatch and cause screaming game” with you or her father. For example, try playing power games in which you say, “Don’t take the towel off the knob,” and then, “Oh no, she took the towel,” as you run after her to get the towel to no avail. Feeling happy and understood, she learns how to play without hurting the baby, being with an understanding and playful parent.

Children who feel helpless about their loss will start their own power games. A father asked my advice about his three-year-old who, shortly after the baby started to crawl, started throwing clothes all over the bedroom. He was also more grumpy than usual and was annoying the baby all day long. The father tried to stop him from throwing the clothes, to explain to him why clothes should be put nicely in drawers…to no avail. After the phone session with me, his inclination to stop his son’s action changed:

This time, when Chris entered the bedroom and gleefully emptied his drawers onto the floor, his father was ready. Seeing his clothes strewn about, he responded with a dramatic “Oh no!” which seemed to give Chris the sense of power he was looking for, “Aha, I got him.” Then his father folded the clothes and piled them back in the drawers so that Chris could repeat his self-made ‘therapy’ again and again. Each time Chris threw the clothes out, his father responded with a louder and more dramatic “Oh no.” The game ended with the clothes all over the room and Dad “giving up” in exhaustion.

For two months, Chris continued to initiate this game, and for two months, his father gasped dramatically and then picked up the clothes, folded them, and put them away to be thrown all over again. All the while, father trusted his son’s need to play this game in order to gain a sense of power and autonomy. Chris’s irritability and disturbing behaviors have gradually diminished. One day, he stopped dumping his clothes on the floor and has never done it again. Not only has he become very organized, but his relationship with his sister flourished.

When playing power games, it is crucial not to take a child’s power away. If you are the one to stop the game or to control its direction, the child feels helpless all over again. Doing this cancels most of the emotional benefits of the game.

Aggression Toward the New Baby

A child who is aggressive toward the baby is telling you that she is feeling self-doubt. Saying, “But you love the baby, touch her nicely…” is not helpful when it contradicts her inner experience. This is not the time for “I love you,” either. The young child who fantasizes hurting the baby will feel very guilty, “If mom only knew what I am imagining, she would think I am horrible.”

The greatest relief for the child is to know that you know what is going on inside of him. If you know what his fantasies are and you still love him, then and only then, he can live at peace with himself and feel worthy of your love. It doesn’t mean you let him hurt the baby; you don’t. But say “yes” to his emotional expression. Take him to another room with a doll and let him show you what he imagines himself doing to the baby, and let him know that you know how he feels, that it is fine to have these fantasies, and that you love him.

Your child wants to do well but cannot control himself (even if he covers up his feelings by pretending to laugh or not care). He has no control over the fantasies or over his actions. As one of my children (then five) once said, “Mommy, can the homeopath give me a remedy so I won’t want to hurt the baby? I want that.”

Meeting an Older Sibling’s Needs

Your child’s attachment needs are especially important when they are challenged by the presence of a new baby. Make a conscious design to meet your child’s needs:

  • Get help; find an older child or a friend to hold the baby so you can be with your child.
  • Plan time for you and your child alone when your spouse or relative is at home.
  • Take every opportunity when the baby is asleep in your arms, or not needy, to engage yourself with your child.
  • If your child wants to be a baby again, embrace his play.
  • Provide new and exciting activities that help your child see the benefits of being older. Let him enjoy riding the tricycle, going to the zoo, or other wonderful experiences that the baby cannot have and point out how exciting it is. Remember to compare only the experiences, not the children themselves, so as to not hinder emotional bonding between the children.
  • Listen and stay connected.
  • Give your child outlets to express his fantasies and share your own similar childhood memories. Once fully expressed and validated, the child does not need to act on these fantasies.
  • Instead of a clean house, have happy souls; instead of a ready dinner, be a content mother.
  • Get more sleep by keeping the children in your bed and going to sleep at the same time to maximize your rest. (Intimacy with your spouse is just as fun in the morning or afternoon.)
  • If your baby goes to sleep earlier, give your child time with both parents, which he misses so much.
  • Give your child the opportunity to care for the baby and help when he wants to.
  • Prioritize connection and being present and unconditionally loving. This ride is the sweetest and it passes fast.

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