Adding A New Baby To The Mix: Managing The Transition From One Child to Two

Things to keep in mind:

  • This is a huge transition for everyone in your family – not only for your little one, but also for you and your partner.

  • There will be incredibly high highs and devastatingly low lows. This is a universal truth of the human experience, and especially true with babies and toddlers, who have such primitive social-emotional capacity. Breathe and remind yourself over and over again that this, too, shall pass.

  • Adding a second child often requires that you give yourself over to parenthood completely – while the first baby often still allows you to steal moments for yourself, the second can bring a new loss of any remaining freedom and a challenge to your sense of self, particularly as your time alone disappears. Be gentle with yourself as you adjust to the changes – it won’t last forever.

Strategies for Managing the Transition

For Your Older Child:

Expect some big emotions as your oldest experiences a range of feelings regarding the transition, including sadness, loss, anger, frustration and disorientation. These negative emotions are hard for any of us to tolerate, even adults with advanced coping skills and self-regulation capacity. For toddlers and preschoolers, it is that much harder – and can show up as increased tearfulness, more whiny behavior, physical/verbal aggression, decreased frustration tolerance, sleep/toileting regression, and more. Focus on understanding where the behavior is coming from: your child is missing you and getting used to a new way of life, with your attention (appropriately) focused elsewhere. Acknowledge these feelings (“I know how sad/mad/confused you feel. It is hard to have a new baby in our family and to have to share Mommy with someone else.”), reassure your child of your love, and think about ways to help your child adjust, including:

  • Emphasize having your child be in a helper role (to bring you baby supplies like diapers, feeding pillow, etc)

  • Carve out special time with big sibling during naps or special outings for just you and her. Make a big deal about this Mommy & Me time, and have it be a regular thing that big sister can come to expect, plan for and anticipate, especially during the harder moments.

  • Prior to baby’s arrival, prepare your child for different aspects of the transition and what to expect, including the separation from you during the birth (if he won’t be present for it) as well as the arrival home of baby. You can use children’s books and language to help explain what will happen: “The baby is growing bigger and stronger in Mommy’s belly and will soon be ready to come out. When that happens, Mommy will go to the hospital for a few days so the midwives/doctors/etc can help. Grandpa will stay and take care of you. Mommy will miss you and will be so excited to see you and introduce you to baby.” 

  • Helpful books for pregnancy, birth and sibling transition: Joanna Cole’s “I’m a Big Brother/Sister”; “There is a House Inside Mummy”; “Hello Baby (especially for home birth); “The New Baby” by Mr. Rogers; “Peter’s Chair”; or make your own book using pictures of your family and your home, and then add pictures of baby to help your oldest visualize the changes.

For Your Relationship:

Relationships can suffer during this period of transition, when couples find themselves focusing entirely on the children and losing sight of the things they loved about one another prior to parenthood. Sleep deprivation, work schedules, day to day household responsibilities and the emotional rollercoaster of parenting and hormones just complicate everything. Prioritize and protect your relationship, either by scheduling a weekly date (during the day or at night) for just you two, creating a gratitude ritual (for example, forcing yourselves to name one thing about each other each night that you are grateful for), and finding time each day to come together and laugh about the craziness that is your life. Reach out to extended family, other parent friends, etc and ASK FOR HELP THIS TIME. You’re not new to parenthood – you know now that it is hard and you do not have to do it alone.

For You:

Many parents go through their own process of loss as they add a new baby, and most worry about the changes that will inevitably come to their relationship with their oldest child. Do not beat yourself up about this – it is a natural part of the transition and your relationship with your oldest will come back around and be enhanced by the growth of your family.

It takes a village – find, cultivate and grow yours. You are not alone in this, and the number one way that people survive it is by connecting with others who are in the weeds. Reach out to current and past mom friends in person. Social media and Facebook groups are great for finding comfort in the middle of the night when you are at your wits end, but nothing replaces the magical feeling of sitting down face to face with another mom or dad who can look into your eyes and relate to your story. Parenthood is an isolating experience; prioritize connection for yourself, and this feeling of connection will trickle down to your children and family. If you experience symptoms of postpartum depression or anxiety (which affects at least one in seven mothers and one in ten fathers in our country), reach out for support. There is incredibly effective treatment available and you do not have to suffer alone.

Helpful tips crowd-sourced from other parents who have been through this:

  1. Your basic goal for the first 4 to 6 months is purely survival. Anything on top of that is icing on the cake. Focus on the essentials and let the nonessentials slide.

  2. Refrain from telling him that he will have a new playmate. It will be a long time before the baby can be a companion.

  3. Tell him "We need a baby buddy." Ask him to help with handing over the fresh diaper; passing the bottle, toy or blanket; putting clothes in the hamper; turning on or off the lights; all those little tasks that will help him to feel involved and needed. 

  4. If the baby is fussing (not really crying, just complaining), make sure your first hears you say, ‘Just a minute baby, I'm helping (insert siblings name) right now.’ Then it will feel easier to ask the oldest to wait while you tend to the baby.

  5. If anyone asks how they can help, tell them to make a big deal out of your older child. Greet her first before oohing and ahhing over the baby. Congratulate her and say how lucky the baby is to have her. 

  6. Siblings often decide they want attention right when parent is feeding baby. Prepare for some things you can do to entertain older sibling while feeding baby, especially when you are the only adult there. Reading books can work, or also playing "I spy." Some kids like to be helpful and you can assign them a special job as your helper and have them go get you things, like a glass of wine. I mean a glass of water.

  7. For a tight age gap between siblings: just know this will be very HARD. And that it will get easier once everybody is upright, potty trained, and talking.

  8. We started putting a car seat in the car before the baby came and would say, that's where your baby brother is going to sit. 

  9. Buy a really special present for him, and give it to him after the birth to honor him as the big sibling and help him feel connected to the baby.

  10. You WILL love them the same, despite your fear. Your heart doesn’t split, it doubles in size.

  11. Don’t be afraid to apologize to your older child, your spouse, your baby, or yourself when you lose it. You’re human. Model that humans sometimes lose it and that is OK, and then we try again.

  12. Something I came across the other day suggested having at least one friend with a kid older than your oldest, and I think that's good advice. 

  13. I really wanted to do a million "special" things with (big brother) before (baby) was born, but his wise preschool teacher urged me to keep things the same. She said he really wanted routine and stability, and doing all the unusual outings and treats would throw him off. Proved to be true in our case. 

  14. In general, the second child throws most parent knowledge out the window! We felt like we knew how to be parents after 1 kid but the second kid challenged us in totally different ways at every turn. On the positive side, we knew it was all time limited and we would one day sleep again. 

  15. It would be really cool if there was a way of letting women know about how tough it can be, a crazy and out of control kind of a period, without dramatizing it or telling war stories. I feel like there's a sort of unspoken competition to either keep it all together and appear perfect, or to go on and on about how you had it worse than anyone else in the world. It would be great to create a platform for hearing each other and holding each other in a place of love and support.

  16. Know that chances are the second child will be very different and everything you learned with the first will be useless. But the vital difference is that this time you know you can do it.

Additional Resources:

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Parenting, InfantsSamantha Pugh