Preparing your toddler for the new baby

Your baby is growing into a toddler and you discover that you are expecting again! You will probably have mixed emotions — excitement at the thought of a new baby and worry about how you will manage two.

There are things that you can do to make life easier for the whole family. Here are a few ideas that have worked for other families. Only you know what is right for yours.

When you find out that you are pregnant

Many mothers find it best to tell their child soon after they discover they are pregnant. Toddlers understand more than you expect and will soon pick up that something is going on. However, just saying that ‘there's a baby inside Mummy's tummy’ may not mean much to a toddler. Looking at books or pictures of pregnant women can be a good start. You can talk about the lady in the picture and how her tummy is nice and round because she has a baby growing inside and that you will have a round tummy soon because you have a baby inside your tummy too. Mention it often, even if you just see a lack of interest or blank stares. Or you may prefer to wait until later — perhaps when your bump is obvious. Only you can decide which is better for you child — after all, you know him best.

If your toddler is still breastfeeding, you do not need to stop. However make sure you tell your medical adviser(s) that you are still breastfeeding. If you decide to wean your toddler at this time, it is generally easier to do it slowly. Breastfeeding counsellors can support you if you are breastfeeding while pregnant but they cannot provide medical advice. They can also support you as you tandem feed your toddler and baby, if you choose to do so. ABA produces an excellent booklet called Breastfeeding through pregnancy and beyond, full of useful information.

Before your new baby is born, think about the changes that you would like to make. Straight after the birth of a new baby is not the time to toilet train the older one. Will your toddler need to move out of her cot or the family bed? Will she be attending day care or be cared for in the home of a relative or friend when your baby is born? It may be best to make any changes well before your baby arrives. Do you think she is ready for a ‘big bed’ or toddler bed? Do you need to buy a second cot? If you co-sleep, will you continue to do this after the baby is born? All families are different.

You also need to start thinking about the birth. Do you want your child to be present? Could your toddler cope emotionally with seeing you in pain and lots of strange people around? Or will you leave him with someone else? Who will that be? Will they care for your toddler in your home or in theirs? It may help if your toddler is used to this carer. He will need to feel safe with this person at what could be a stressful time for all involved. If you are confident that he is being well cared for, then you are less likely to worry during the birth.

Introducing your toddler to the new baby

Most toddlers are wary of strangers and yet many parents believe they will fall in love with their new brother or sister straightaway. Although some do bond with the baby immediately, other children are not interested or expect the baby to not actually live with them. Many mothers have found that tandem breastfeeding helped their toddler bond with the new baby.

While there is no right way to introduce your new baby, there are a few things you might like to think about. Toddlers may become angry or jealous to find a new person in ‘their’ space with ‘their’ parents. A neutral location, such as the hospital or the house of a relative may be a better choice. Then you and your toddler can take the baby home together.

Some people like to have a ritual to help their children welcome their new brother or sister into the world. A gift from the baby to the toddler can make that first meeting even more special and give the toddler something to play with if she gets bored.

The first few days or weeks

Getting to know your newborn is exciting but tiring. Establishing breastfeeding is important yet time-consuming. With your first child there were fewer people to think about — just you, your partner and the baby. This time around is different. You have a toddler to take care of too.

Firstly, find all the support you can. If you partner can take time off, this will give your partner the chance to spend extra time with your older child, as well as the baby, and further cement their bond. Other family members and friends can also play with and care for your toddler or may be able to look after your new baby while you spend time with your toddler. Most toddlers love to help. Ask him to bring you the items you need to change the baby, or help to wash her in the bath and make sure he knows how much you value this.

Allow your toddler to share the limelight. Ask him to introduce guests to his baby brother or sister. Ask a few close relatives or friends to bring a small gift for him also, so he does not feel left out.

Encourage your toddler to call his new brother or sister by their name. Months of saying ‘the baby’ (or whatever it was you called your growing bump) will be hard to change. Gently encourage him to call the new baby by her name.

While you are breastfeeding, you will need to keep your toddler safe and busy, especially if you are home alone. Before you begin to breastfeed, give your toddler a special toy, book or DVD that you keep for breastfeeding time. Some mothers like to put away some of their toddler’s toys so that they can rotate them when the novelty wears off. It can be helpful for a young child to have a baby doll of their own to care for. Suggest a visit to the toilet before you get started. Make sure that you have a drink and your toddler has something to eat and drink, as he is sure to ask as soon as you are comfortably breastfeeding. Have the phone by your side. Be prepared for interruptions.

Spend as much one-on-one time with your toddler as you can. Even just spending 15 minutes with your toddler each time your baby goes to sleep can make a huge difference. Have a few special toys or books that are only for you and your toddler and only come out when your baby is asleep or being cared for by someone else. These need not be new activities. You could paint or draw or do something that your toddler enjoys. Make this a special time for you and your toddler. Going for a walk to the park, with your new baby in a sling or pram, gives you time with your older child, and can also boost your own energy level.

Be consistent. Your life is changing at an amazing rate but your toddler still needs you. Try to keep bedtimes and the bedtime routine the same, even if it is your partner who is putting her to bed and not you. As far as you can, keep up your other special daily or weekly routines. It is not unusual for toddlers to ‘play up’ when a new baby arrives. Your toddler needs you to set the boundaries, but to continue to treat him with love and patience as you help him adapt to this big change in his life.

Rest. Your new baby and your toddler both need a mummy. Don't let yourself get overtired by trying to do too much. Very few people expect everything to be tidy and under control in a house with a toddler and a new baby. Most visitors will be happy to make everyone a cup of tea or help with simple chores while they are there. Don’t be afraid to ask. If your toddler and baby are both sleeping at the same time, that is a cue for you to rest too. Your toddler may be prepared to play quietly while you doze. If you are not sleepy then take some time out for yourself. Even 15 minutes reading a magazine and a glass of water can do wonders for your energy level. Whatever it is, make sure you remember to look after yourself.

This is a special time in the life of your young family. Relax. It will help you and your toddler adjust to all the changes that a new baby brings.

 Useful resources

  • There's a House Inside My Mummy by Giles Andreae and Vanessa Cabban

Australian Breastfeeding Association booklets available from Mothers Direct:

  • Breastfeeding: as your family grows
  • Breastfeeding: diet, exercise, sex and more.
  • Breastfeeding through pregnancy and beyond' booklet.

 © Australian Breastfeeding Association Reviewed October 2012