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When A New Baby Causes Behavior Regressions In Toddler Sibling

I remember the day my 3- and 4-year-old came to meet their new sister at the hospital. They had entered the room so cautiously, but that all changed the moment they saw her. They excitedly ran over to the bed — eager to see their baby, as they called her. Now that she’s been home with us for a few weeks, I’ve loved seeing their bond grow and develop. What hasn’t been so great, though, is the clear behavior regressions in my toddlers. 

There has been a lot of acting out towards me and their father. Also, if I’m carrying their sister, they want me to carry them too. At the exact same time. Or if I’m nursing, they will bring their plates of food over, to sit in my lap so that I can feed them. While I know this is normal, it’s been challenging to maneuver.

“Bringing a baby home is new,” says Chelsea Kunde, Licensed Associate Marriage and Family Therapist, and Owner of Building Blocks Az. “Many things change and this can cause stress. Typically, in younger children, they do not understand these changes or what their new roles mean so we see them acting out in different ways.”

She also adds that sometimes the way this stress manifests itself is in what we call “regression,” i.e. potty training issues and sleeping issues. “They can be reaching for areas in their life they can control.”

So What Can We Do To Help With The Transition And These Behavior Regressions?  

Kunde suggests remembering that any reaction is an “okay” reaction. “Children often have a way of expressing how they feel emotionally in a physical way. Just know this can be normal. We can normalize the behavior, but we don’t have to give in. We can validate their feelings without saying a behavior is okay.”

Here’s an example of how to share your attention, validate their feelings, and give the older child some special time: “I know sharing my attention is hard with the new baby. Once the baby takes a nap, let’s play!”

Other tips include:

Prepare By Talking About The Change. 

Talk about what will change and what will stay the same. Also, talk about the wonderful things about having a baby and the things that can be annoying. For instance, with my daughter, I would empathize with how she was feeling about feeding time, shares Kunde. I had real conversations with her about the frustration of having to feed her sister so often in the beginning. We would also have conversations about how fun it was for her to help me change her sister’s diaper. Balance the real emotions. They are feeling it all, as are we.

Build In Special Roles For Older Siblings.

Things like grabbing a diaper, helping to get the wipes, or helping to burp the baby [are great ways to include an older sibling].

Discuss Expectations For When Baby Arrives. 

Good boundaries and expectations are key in this change. For example, telling your older child: “You may hold the baby when an adult says it’s okay, is watching, and you are sitting on a couch. You may not hold the baby when you are walking or if an adult doesn’t say you can.”

Siblings with new baby, who they love, but displaying behavior regressions to parents

Now What About Those Tantrums?

According to Kunde, tantrums will happen. “Clinically, I have often seen this happen where the tantrums or changes in behaviors almost seem delayed or unrelated to the baby. But most likely it is related.” She suggests:

  • Being empathetic that change is hard and these behaviors are reactions to the new baby and some stress in their lives.
  • Sticking to your routine and be consistent. Change is hard but we still want to maintain our expectations and routine. This will help with the adjustment.
  • Validating their feelings, but also do not allow behaviors to continue that are aggressive or disruptive. It is okay to still give consequences during this time but also know where the behavior is stemming from (i.e. a new baby).
  • Having more conversations. Young children can benefit from matter of fact discussions. Try: “When we get frustrated, let’s take a deep breath instead of hitting. Can you practice with me?” Then take a deep breath and show them. Another example: “Sometimes sharing time with the baby can be frustrating.”
  • Carving out one-on-one time with the older sibling. This can be as simple as playing a game when the baby is napping or asleep for the night. The one-on-one attention can go a long way, as most of the behavior you see is seeking attention.
  • Having patience. The baby is not going anywhere and neither are you. They will adjust, but give them time. As parents we have 9 months to prepare and even then I know personally I needed time to adjust. Kids are the same way.

Sometimes the regression manifests itself in a child’s sleep routine.

“I see this a lot when a new baby comes home,” says Kunde.  “I cannot stress enough how important consistency and routine are.” Try to:

  • Maintain the same sleep routines. Try not to change the schedule if you can, but add the baby to the mix.
  • If the older sibling is fighting nap and bedtime, continue being consistent and try not to give in. Sleep is incredibly important for everyone.
  • Remember, a child’s job is to push and our job as parents is to maintain the healthy boundaries.
  • If they try to protest bedtime, that is okay! Actually this is reasonable and can be expected, but we don’t want to give into it. We still want to follow through and show them that even with a new baby and mom and dad being tired, we still have rules, routine and structure. They will stop pushing if the pushing doesn’t work.

Mom with toddler and baby.

For expecting parents, Kunde suggest these tips for helping your child(ren) prepare for a new baby:

  • Prepare them slowly during your pregnancy. Purchase books to explain their new upcoming role, have them help you prepare the nursery and organize, explain what will happen when you’re at the hospital and what will happen when you get home.
  • Have a countdown calendar.
  • Have a present for your child(ren) from the baby at the hospital. Let them know that when they come to the hospital it’s a visit and they don’t stay overnight with you. Explain how you have to heal and need time to recover.
  • Never underestimate the power of conversation and being present with them. That one-on-one time, those small but meaningful conversations, and them feeling heard and understood can make all the difference.
  • Be honest. Try and avoid statements or questions like, “aren’t you so excited to be a big sister or big brother?!” (I am sure most of the time they are, but what if in that moment they are not excited?). Instead ask them specific questions or tell them your own feelings about the baby. We all feel many feelings towards a new baby and it is okay to share those. “I am so excited for the new baby, but I am also nervous.”
  • Give them ways to help, but also respect if they don’t want to help each and every time. For example, teach them they can say “no thank you” when you ask them to grab a diaper.
  • Avoid big transitions right before the baby is born. We want to make sure they are able to adjust to a new transition before the baby arrives. For example, give them at least 1-2 months of the change and transition before the baby. If you don’t have this much time, I would hold off on the big change (i.e. potty training, big bed, etc.).
  • Explain before the baby gets here exactly what a baby does (eat, sleep, and needs a diaper change). Many children don’t understand that babies cannot play right away. But encourage their relationship to grow by playing peek-a-boo, noticing when the baby is looking at their sibling and pointing that out, helping with tummy time or burping. Involving siblings is key!
  • Lastly, show the older sibling that the baby doesn’t always come first. This can easily be shown by, “I need to change the baby’s diaper but the baby has to wait 5 minutes for us to finish building our tower.”

Prepare for the “worst” but hope for the best! And enjoy!

Ravelle Worthington is a wife, momma of three, and the founder of Mommy Brain. Follow her on Instagram here.
Join the Mommy Brain private community where members can have open and honest discussions about all the parts of motherhood, whether that’s parent/child-related, self-care, life after becoming a mom, divorce, career changes, intimacy with your partner — there are many layers to who we are as women and as mothers. This is the space to talk about it all!

Story photos provided by author.

By Mommy Brain, July 30, 2019
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