Toddler meets baby: Sibling love?

My daughter was 2 when her brother was born. I did a million things wrong and a few things right, or so it seemed at the time.  

I involved her in the pregnancy. I read the “new baby” picture books. I took time — precious, bleary-eyed time — just days after his birth to sit with her and do puzzles. 

She got a new sandbox “from the baby” and was asked to help often: Bring wipes to the changing table. Sing Baby a song.

But then, I had listened to the advice of others who insisted that she would wean voluntarily during pregnancy — because the milk would dry up or taste funny from the new hormones. By the third trimester, this hadn’t happened and I didn’t have the heart or the energy to take action. Besides, we were only down to five minutes at bedtime. We were weaning. 

Shockingly difficult

I attempted tandem nursing for about two minutes before feeling certain that death by aggravation and overstimulation was indeed possible. I sobbed in my bed — exhausted and swimming in guilt — with the baby in my arms. “I’m sorry, Honey, but the baby needs this milk.”

Yes, I said that. It was the hard truth and was what my biological instincts felt to the core.

I’m pretty sure there were books and experts who would have told me that it was the absolute worst thing to say. But it was honest and it happened and my daughter and I found other ways to be close. She went on to both hate and adore her little brother, as big sisters do.  

She embraced the big-girl status, she regressed, she threw fits, she snuggled close while I nursed and presented her favorite toys to the baby. It was everything you’ve ever heard about introducing a sibling. It was lovely and it was also so hard.

In my personal experiences and also from my years of work as a postpartum doula, I can say with certainty that adding a second child to the family when the first is a toddler is one of the most difficult transitions a parent can make — shockingly difficult, and rocky. 

Processing emotions

Delta Larkey, a licensed marriage and family therapist practicing in St. Paul said: “Children experience a myriad of emotions with the introduction of a sibling — jealousy, uncertainty, happiness, fear. Often, the feelings trace back to, ‘What now? What will happen to me, to us, to what I know?’” 

Which is why my proclamation about milk might have been the right choice after all. If nothing else, I was clear. This is what’s happening now. We need to find another way. And, also, I love you so much.

Larkey suggests allowing children to demonstrate their wild range of emotions in whatever way they can — as long as it’s safe. 

“For example, some children will want to play at being a baby,” she said. “It can be very helpful to allow the child to do this and to respond positively: I’m so lucky, now I have two babies! I love them both.”

Parents often worry about reinforcing this behavior, but Larkey said allowing children to work through those feelings and impulses is the fastest path to letting them go. At the same time, it never hurts to follow a game of baby-pretend with, “Babies can’t have cookies. Aren’t you lucky? You can.”

They aren’t alone

Many toddlers experience meeting a new sibling. And, true to their nature, they handle it in their own darn way — with delight, wonder, defiance and tempest. Though I refer to this time as rocky, I have every confidence that the kids come out just fine. The mistakes and strokes of genius we present as parents when going from one kid to two have little bearing on later sibling rivalry. 

That will happen, as will some level of camaraderie. 

It’s rocky for you, Toddler Parent, because it’s a big shift in the relationship with your firstborn. Suddenly, your 2-year-old seems ready for college. What is he doing in diapers?  

Your first love is no longer your only. Your child is no longer the center of the universe. But who is? There’s health in opening your big parent heart and there’s health for your child, in sharing the spotlight. 

You’ll make your mistakes. You will — like me — choose inopportune times to potty train or wean. You will be awesome and fun on very little sleep, and you will be human. And your child will be lucky for all of it.