Your baby and your toddler
Having a second child is in some ways easier than the first — you may feel much more confident about your ability to take care of a baby, as you've done it before. But along with this confidence comes a new set of challenges.
As a second-time parent, you can't devote all of your time and energy to the new baby.
You might still be tired after the birth, trying to cope with the housework, missing sleep and settling the new baby into a routine, while at the same time, there is another small child who still needs your love and attention.
Keeping your toddler happy is a good start. That's why it's important to understand your toddler's reactions to your new baby.
A new baby can seem threatening to a toddler. From their perspective, their parents had more time to help, comfort or play with them. This changes with the arrival of a new sibling.
Now, all the attention seems focused on that noisy little bundle, and they are expected to be 'big'. It is normal for toddlers to blame the new baby for this change in their routine.
Sometimes, toddlers will regress and become more 'babyish' to attract your attention. They may seem to forget how to use a potty or how to feed themselves. They may cry as much as your new baby.
This happens because they are trying to show you that they are still small and still need your attention.
For parents, the new baby's needs are obvious, and it might seem reasonable to expect the older child to wait. But toddlers often won't agree to this, so parents of 2 or more children must be resourceful and find strategies to manage the different needs of their children.
What can I do to help my toddler cope with the arrival of a new baby?
There are many things you can do as parents to help prepare your toddler for the arrival of your new baby, as well as encourage your toddler to bond with your baby after the birth.
Prepare your toddler ahead of time
Planning ahead can prevent your toddler feeling 'replaced' by your new baby. If you plan to change your toddler's room or their furniture, try to do this early in your pregnancy. Explain that you're doing it because your toddler is growing bigger, not because the new baby will need their cot.
It's easier if your toddler is already potty trained and can feed and dress themselves without help before your new baby comes home, but don't worry if this isn't the case. Remember that your toddler may go back to old habits to attract your attention.
Encourage your toddler to socialise and play with other children, perhaps in a playgroup. This helps your child to develop the social skills they will need to have a good relationship with their new sibling.
Telling your toddler that you are having a baby
Toddlers may not understand that a new baby will bring changes to their life, but you can talk to them about the baby growing inside you to help them start to understand.
Here are some strategies you can use to help your toddler adjust to the idea of a sibling:
- Tell your toddler about the new baby, but not too soon, as 9 months is a long time for them to wait. It's a good idea to tell them later in the pregnancy when they can see what is happening, as your body changes.
- Help your toddler get used to the idea of a new baby in the family by talking about 'our baby' and looking at baby pictures in albums or magazines. Some parents take their toddlers to visit the maternity ward, or friends with newborns. You could help them to start a scrapbook about babies. There are also many good books available about becoming a big brother or sister.
- Toddlers love to hear stories about themselves when they were small. Consider sharing stories and pictures of them when they were babies.
- If you are having a hospital birth, start talking about going away to have 'our baby' a little before the due date. Explain what arrangements you've made for your toddler while you're in hospital. Children need time to adjust. It's very important that they feel secure about your return. When you go to hospital, you could ask them to look after something for you until you return, like a favourite book, a doll or soft toy.
When your toddler visits you in hospital
Arranging for your toddler to visit you and your new baby in hospital is a good idea.
Toddlers usually like to see newborns and may like to touch or hold them. When your toddler is leaving, you could give them a surprise envelope to open at home or in the car — this is a great way to avoid difficult goodbyes.
Helping your toddler feel secure
It's important that your toddler feels secure, not only so that your household is more peaceful, but also for their own wellbeing. Feeling good about themselves is the basis of their self-confidence later in life. Try not to let your toddler feel bad about themselves, or feel ignored or a nuisance around the baby.
Toddlers need to continue feeling loved, wanted and important, and there are many small ways to achieve this. Grandparents, aunts and uncles can be a great help in making toddlers feel special. It also helps if the parent who is not caring for the new baby can focus on the toddler.
Interacting with your toddler once you go home
If you're having a hospital or birth centre birth, make sure your toddler gets lots of your attention when you come home. Ask someone else to carry your baby while you give your toddler a hug. If your toddler is not enthusiastic, remember that they may be feeling hurt and replaced by someone new who seems to be the centre of attention most of the time.
If your friends or relatives visit, you could ask them to pay attention to your toddler too. Spending time with your toddler is far more important than keeping up with housework. Play with your toddler, and share games with them and get down to their level — for example, on hands and knees to build blocks, or on your tummy, to draw with them.
Remember that all the care in the world will not prevent an older child having strong reactions towards the baby now and then. But if you plan ahead, you can help minimise any negative feelings and disruptive behaviour.
Helping your toddler accept your new baby
Toddlers feel important and responsible when they're allowed to hold a baby. You can make your toddler feel special and 'grown up' by making a fuss of them, especially while they are being careful not to hurt the baby. Encourage yours to hold the baby, while you help them so they don't accidentally squash or drop the baby. Holding the toddler on your lap while they hold the baby is safest. Show your toddler how to stroke your baby gently with their palm to prevent accidental poking or scratching.
Involve your child in caring for the new baby with you. This might include bringing you a nappy or tissues when the baby needs a nappy change. This lets you spend time interacting with your toddler, while at the same time and encourages them to see themselves as a big sister or brother with responsibilities.
Safety for your new baby
Never leave a toddler alone with a baby. They may be tempted to share their food, which could choke the baby, or rock the pram to stop the crying which may overturn it.
It helps to have locks and catches high up on doors to keep doors closed when you need to. Door barriers are useful too — you can see over them and the baby can get used to household noise, but they keep the toddler out of the baby's room.
How can I manage my toddler during baby feed times?
Feed times can be particularly difficult as it's hard to watch over toddlers while also paying attention to the baby. Toddlers may also feel jealous or frightened and act out by hitting or pulling at the baby. They might also demand attention by grizzling, wetting their pants or wanting you to bring them things.
Do a 'toddler check' before starting a feed:
- Is your toddler busy playing or sleeping?
- Are they in a safe place?
- Is the gate fastened?
- Is the potty handy?
- Is there a drink or snack within easy reach?
If your toddler likes to stay with you while you're feeding your baby, cuddling them or reading them a story at the same time could make feeding time a highlight for them too.
You could also use feed time props like dolls, which some toddlers like to look after as their own 'baby', while you feed the new baby.
An bag with some old clothes can also be a fun distraction for toddlers who like to dress up. Many toddlers will be happy drawing or playing with blocks near you while you feed the baby.
Try turning on the radio or playing music to make your baby's mealtime a relaxing experience for all of you.
Making sure that your toddler doesn't feel rejected is important, but so is your need for peace and quiet to feed your baby. Find the simplest way that works for you to have relaxing feeding times.
Resources and support
The Australian Breastfeeding association provides advice on preparing your toddler for the new baby, including how to manage breastfeeds with your toddler around.
Speak to a maternal child health nurse
Call Pregnancy, Birth and Baby to speak to a maternal child health nurse on 1800 882 436 or video call. Available 7am to midnight (AET), 7 days a week.
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Last reviewed: May 2023