It felt like the only advice I got to prepare for baby number two was to get my toddler a gift from baby. Which was great… for helping me through the first five seconds of parenting two.
When your second arrives, the hardest part will be your older child. You already know how to care for a newborn. What you don’t know is how to care for a toddler (or older kid) who is being dethroned and needs to find their new family role.
As they say hindsight is 20/20, and now that my baby just celebrated her first birthday, I can definitely say I know what I should have done to prepare my older child for baby number two. How to handle the birth and arrival and what was critical for those first few months and beyond. While most of my advice relates to preparing a toddler for baby number two, almost all of it can also be applied to an older kid as well.
While I learned a lot on the way, I will say it wasn’t easy and I think that is mainly because I didn’t know what to expect or have any good ideas ready to go to. Clearly it could have been a lot easier and a lot more fun, so hopefully by sharing, I can make your experience better.
Ideally these are great to do before baby arrives, but it won’t be the end of the world if you do them after. It will just be harder.
Bedtime and nap routine that anyone can do
First, you will need this for when you give birth. Additionally, there will be times you need someone else to put your older child to bed. While you might not mind an hour bedtime routine now, you will once baby arrives. Your toddler isn’t going to be up for any more changes once that baby arrives so make all changes now.
I suggest really working hard on a simple 15-20-minute routine and work on the ability for your toddler to fall asleep on their own without you in the room. If they aren’t doing this already, use a timer (see time point below) to check in on them or you can just make excuses to keep leaving to start this process.
Plus, it is a lot easier to get help with bedtime if the routine is something manageable that your partner is also willing to do. My husband took over my toddler’s bedtime routine once baby arrived because our baby had a bad witching hour. We should have gotten my toddler used to him putting her to bed before baby’s arrival. A plus is that if you do this before baby and switch back and forth, your toddler becomes accustomed to different people putting them to bed, making when you go to the hospital easier.
Play baby together
Kids learn through play. While your toddler was once a baby, they really don’t know what having a baby in the family will mean. Anything that gives them an idea about what is going to happen is really important. It is hard to explain the changes in words so showing a toddler through play is your best way.
We bought this baby with clothing and diapers. We would then play baby. We would carry the baby, walk the baby in my toddler’s stroller. We would comfort the baby when she “cried.” We would nurse and burp the baby and change her diaper. I would even say oh let me nurse baby first and then I can play blocks.
We also have a doctor’s kit and my toddler loved giving the baby check-ups. I think that helped her when we went to all of the baby’s pediatrician appointments.
Start the new role of “big helper (big kid)” now
When baby comes home, everyone’s schedules and time needs to adjust to the new addition. Your toddler will see that they now have to share mom, and this is very hard. They are also at a loss as to how they fit into the family now because until then, they were the baby. They also don’t know how to express how they feel about the new addition. These emotions therefore come out in undesirable behavior all aimed at getting attention. For my toddler, this was screaming.
The biggest thing that corrected the behavior was focusing on their new role. Provide lots of attention and praise and your toddler’s focus will shift from screaming (in my case) to their new role as big kid.
Start now by emphasizing their big kid role. Praise everything they do on their own. The more they like doing things on their own like getting on their shoes etc., the easier your life will be. You want them to feel like the big helper before baby. Then when baby comes along, they still feel important by being valued as a big helper.
Remember how I talked about playing with a baby doll? Make sure to include their new role during play. As the big kid, can you pick out baby’s outfit or get the burp cloth. Baby needs a new diaper, where is my big helper?
Write a social story about the arrival of baby
As the kid TV show Daniel Tiger says “When we do something new, lets talk about what we will do.” The more you talk about it the easier it is for them to process and handle. At first, I didn’t think my toddler would really understand and thought avoiding the subject would be best. However, the exact opposite is true.
Get some paper and markers and write a story about what will happen such as mommy will go to the hospital, grandpa and grandma will stay with you, you will play, they will read you books and say goodnight, you will visit mommy at the hospital and meet your new baby, then your mommy will come back and be so impressed at how good of a job you did.
Be sure to talk about what you think will be the hardest part. For instance, I knew mommy leaving for approximately two days was going to be hard on my toddler. She is very attached. I should have talked about how that would happen, and that she might be scared but that she would have grandma there to give her hugs. I should have reassured her that she could do it and gave her confidence and emphasized that I would come back. She would have cried every time I brought it up (which is why I didn’t do it) but I know it would have been less scary for her and she would have done better if I had done this.
In addition to writing your own so that it will match what will happen, get as many books about becoming a big sister or big brother to read as you can. I really like these books since they come with a big sister or big brother doll.
Do practice trials if possible
Now I thought this was silly to do because it would cause more crying and more distress to my child. However, if they aren’t usde to being watched or put to bed by the person who will babysit for you, then this is a must.
When the baby arrives, you want the only new thing to be baby. Everything else about the ordeal will be something they have dealt with before. Additionally, during a practice, they get you back the next day. The more you practice the more okay they will be with this “change”. Similar to why you want your other half putting them to bed as well.
If you already know who will watch your toddler, then make a plan to do practice runs. If you don’t know, then get started on this ASAP so you can do practice runs.
Since my husband’s parents were out of town, it was hard for us to do practice runs. They arrived a week early and I wish we had let them take over bedtime once they got here so she could adjust before baby.
Start thinking about nursing
If you are still nursing your toddler, then decide if you want to wean before baby. I didn’t fully wean my first before baby arrived. Within a day, I realized that I wasn’t a fan of tandem nursing. I couldn’t keep baby latched and hold both toddler and baby. Therefore, I would nurse baby and then toddler. I literally nursed 24/7. By the time my toddler was done, my baby was ready to nurse again. I was so nursed out I didn’t want to nurse at all. I was also continuously worried that baby wouldn’t have enough milk. I ended up weaning my toddler, which was hard to do with a newborn nursing all the time.
Additionally, my baby was hard to latch. I couldn’t latch her well with a toddler on my lap. Truth is you have no idea what your baby will be like. I wish I had fully weaned my toddler before baby or had switched her to “scheduled” nursing.
Scheduled nursing for your toddler
Scheduled nursing means that you only nurse at specific times. You make it part of their routine and no other time. When they see baby nursing, you can remind them that their turn is after lunch or whenever. Therefore, you can keep that nursing relationship. They also know they still get special nursing time and that baby isn’t taking it away.
Get a nursing travel caddy
Lastly, you will be nursing all over because you have a toddler. Something that helped me a lot the second time was to have a nursing caddy with my supplies in it as well as special play items for my toddler. I also had a second caddy for diaper changes. These things were so useful.
Have multiple quiet time/independent play options
Even if your toddler still naps, you need to have some ideas ready for quiet times. Basically, when you need to tend to baby and can’t tend to your toddler, what can you set them up with on their own? Additionally, these are also good if you just need a mom break. I always used these when I put baby down for a nap.
If they are older than 2, research and find some good TV shows you approve of. We watch Dora and my toddler is picking up Spanish which is cool to see. We also watch Daniel Tiger and Little Bear.
My toddler also loved to play in her bed or crib if I set her up with a few toys. We started adding this to her routine before baby so that she didn’t think it had anything to do with the baby. We also started quiet reading time where she read books to herself. Or I would set her up to do drawing all by herself. They don’t need to be long just 5-10 minutes. This gives you enough time to tend to baby or grab food, etc.
If your toddler won’t let you leave them alone, start by just making up excuses to leave such as going to the restroom. Keep increasing the frequency of leaving and the duration. Another option is to make them a schedule with pictures. For some reason, they are more willing to do something if the paper says so instead of mom.
Start using visual timers for everything
Download on your phone a free visual timer app. It will be one of your best parenting tools. Time is very abstract to toddlers. It really means nothing to them when you say later or in 5 minutes. All they hear is not now.
Now, introduce the visual timer and start to use it on everything and anything such as we are going to be done playing in 5 minutes or the cookies will finish in 3 minutes. You have the child set the time and have them check on it. They will see the colored part get smaller. When the timer goes off, have them come back and see how all the color has disappeared. If you use it enough, then they trust the timer always goes off.
The next time your toddler is freaking out, ask them if they want to set a timer. We even use this when bedtime isn’t going well. We ask if she wants to set the timer for us to come and check in on her. She doesn’t freak out then when we leave. We always follow up and check in on her and show her the timer was up.
Again, this will be such a tool when you have a baby because you will need to take 5-15 minute breaks from your toddler to care for baby. Setting the timer will calm your toddler and reassure them that they will get your attention back. I would also say, I can build that tower with you once I take care of this diaper, do you want to set the timer so you know when I can build the tower. It also keeps me honest, I don’t forget to build the tower and then my toddler trusts me more.
Buy and read Siblings Without Rivalry
Siblings without Rivalry is going to be your new Bible. All of my experience and all of my reading up until number two was all about parenting a child. However, once that second one comes along, one of the biggest jobs you will have is that sibling relationship.
A big reason we had a second is so our first had a sibling. One of my big parenting goals is for them to not be mortal enemies. I was at a complete loss at how to foster a good sibling relationship until this book. I also got to see how I affect their relationship.
Move anything you want to use for baby out of the toddler’s bedroom
The last thing you want is for them to think the baby is now taking their things. My toddler wasn’t possessive of her things until baby arrived. Save everyone the drama and move stuff out a few months before.
Streamline meals as much as possible
We all know from our first that dinner is the worst for babies (aka witching hour). Be smart and plan how you will get dinner on the table for those first few months.
I made a master grocery list and printed out 50 copies. I could then quickly highlight what we needed and write the quantity next to the item. The list made the process faster and required much less brain power. I knew that I could make 10 quick and easy dinners from that grocery list.
I also stocked our freezer with prepped meals. I spent a whole weekend grocery shopping, cutting and prepping meals into freezer Ziplock bags so they were ready to be cooked.
Sign the toddler up for a big kid event
Since I had to care for a baby, my toddler got a lot less play time. Even when baby was napping, I was just so tired and didn’t want to play. Additionally, it was harder to go out and play at the library since I still had to take care of two. However, staying home everyday resulted in major cabin fever for all of us.
The best decision we made was signing up our toddler for gymnastics and dance. Therefore, two mornings a week, I would bring her to these events. She was fully entertained and got her wiggles out while I just sat nursing or holding a sleeping baby. It gave me such a break and I enjoyed watching my toddler.
Emphasize how it’s so awesome they get to do dance, etc. because they are a big kid.
Consider finding a mother’s helper or a babysitter
One of the hardest parts is juggling everything usually with a toddler who wants extra attention. Not being able to give my toddler as much play time and attention caused a lot of temper tantrums. I really wished I had found someone who could just come over and be with my toddler.
I say to do this before baby comes so you have time to find someone and try it out. Your toddler can become familiar with them and look forward to playtime. Then once baby is here, it will be exciting and a treat instead of feeling like they are being pawned off on a stranger. Emphasize how it’s so awesome they get to have their friend (insert name) over because they are a big kid.
If you go this route, I would have the person come over when you most need them. If your toddler doesn’t nap, then maybe they could come mid-day so you could nap while baby does. Another option is the late afternoon or early evening.
Some mother helpers or babysitters will also help with house or meal prep. They could prep dinner with your toddler especially if your toddler likes helping in the kitchen. We got a learning tower to encourage this.
Get a good carrier and a good diaper bag
You are going to be chasing a toddler or keeping up with a big kid so you might need to upgrade some of your baby gear depending on what you have. The biggest ones for me were a backpack diaper bag, a really good carrier and a double stroller.
We had a messenger bag diaper bag for our first and it was great. However, I needed both hands free and couldn’t be worrying about a diaper bag falling off while carrying a baby and keeping tabs on my toddler. You will not regret getting a backpack diaper bag.
I used a ergo carrier with mesh (great for summer by the way) for my first but my second lived in it. When you have two, you can’t rely on a stroller as much. For instance, grocery shopping was easiest if I put my toddler in the grocery cart and my baby in a carrier. At the playground, I would wear baby so I could still watch and play with my toddler. When we would go to the car or cross busy streets. I would have the backpack diaper bag on, baby in a carrier on the front and therefore have two hands free for my toddler. I was also able to move quickly by wearing my baby if I needed to chase my escaping toddler.
Lastly, I got a double stroller so I could strap both in. I didn’t start using a double stroller until my baby could sit well. I used this when we did little errands and I could fit everything in the bin underneath. I also used this when we were somewhere that required a lot of walking, it was very busy or just unsafe to have a toddler on the run. It was super great for the airport. As they got older, my kids liked sitting next to each other so I’m glad we got one with side by side seats.
Ask people to bring big sis and big bro gifts
Since this isn’t your first baby, you probably need very few baby items. If you don’t really need anything but people are asking, then ask for big sibling gifts. You can also ask for them to bring it with them when they come to meet the baby.
I think one of the hardest parts for my toddler was everyone making a big deal about baby. I think it made my toddler feel a little left out. A few people did the reverse and gushed over my toddler and her big new role. Nothing made my toddler light up more. They would also ask if she would show them her baby sister. They would also ask if they could hold her baby sister while she opened her new sibling gift.
Prepare for the birth
Besides having a plan on who will watch your toddler and doing trial runs, there are a few key things you want to do when you get to see your toddler again and when your toddler meets the baby for the first time. Likely this will be when they come to visit you at the hospital. So now what you must remember is that your toddler hasn’t seen you and is super excited to have their mommy back. Your focus must first be to reconnect with your toddler so they are reassured of your love for them. You will want to
- Have the baby in the crib and not in your arms
- Leave a present for the toddler in the crib
- Greet your toddler first and reconnect
- Hear about all the exciting things they were up to and say how impressed you are
- Let them decide when they want to say hi (usually they will notice and want to check it out)
- Do not hold the baby but hold your toddler throughout the first meet and greet
Lastly, be sure to leave whoever is watching your toddler with some really fun things to do. Maybe passes to the zoo, a local museum or beach. Just make sure they have plenty of options to keep your toddler entertained and not thinking about missing you.
Prepare for the first few weeks
The first few weeks will be a lot of adjustment, so it is important to try to remember that most of the behavior you see from your toddler is a direct result of baby’s arrival.
Validate their position
It is very unlikely that any of the negative behavior from your toddler will be directed at the baby. Instead, it will mainly be directed at you and maybe some at your other half. This is because they see it as your fault. You went and got another child. Another child who is encroaching on what was theirs.
Also depending on the age of the toddler, be prepared to hear some things like the baby can’t live here or we need to bring the baby back. This is completely normal.
Now at first, I would try to explain to my toddler. This did not help. However, after reading that siblings with rivalry book, it said to show you understand and relate to their feelings. Therefore my new approach was it is really hard living with a baby. Once I started doing this, things started improving. For instance, if my toddler kept asking me to play blocks but I couldn’t because I was nursing, I would say once she is done nursing. I don’t know why it is taking so long. I really hope she hurries up and finishes soon. I didn’t have to put down baby in order to do this. It really helps to acknowledge their feelings and validate them. I really wish I knew this from the beginning.
Maintain normal life as much as possible
Toddlers do best when they have routine. A new baby usually makes it a lot harder to keep their normal routine going. This is why it is so important for their normal routine to include anyone putting them to bed.
If you can, schedule some playdates with close friends. Friends who don’t care if your house is a mess or if you just sit and nurse the whole time. This will also help to keep you sane by giving you someone to talk to. If they are in daycare, keep them in daycare. If they have a regular babysitter, then book more hours to be sure they get enough quality play.
Try to create sibling bonding from day one
I did four things here that I think really helped. I kept the big helper role really going throughout the day. I had the toddler pick out baby’s outfits, get the diaper for diaper changes and throw away the dirty one, grab things from bins like a blanket, and also sing to baby. Signing to baby was actually super great while nursing because it gave my toddler and I an activity that I could do while nursing. We would always sing the itsy bitsy spider and that is now my baby’s favorite song.
Another good option is to have them care for their baby while you care for yours. You can get the babies dressed together, wear, nurse, change diapers together. To your toddler, this will feel like you are playing with them instead of taking care of baby.
During those times when baby sleeps on you or in your lap or when baby is finally old enough to do some awake time, be sure to include baby in play. During play, I would talk for baby such as during tea parties so that baby could be included. I would also lay down on the floor with both of them and read books to them. We also would all do tummy time together. My toddler loved setting up books around the baby for tummy time so she had something to look at. It allowed my toddler to be the big helper and to “play” with baby.
Don’t stop gifts from baby. Any gift or card that came for the baby in the mail, I told my toddler it was for her. I honestly think this made a huge impact. Instead of things arriving for baby to continually make her feel envious, things kept arriving for her non-stop. And honestly, it was more impactful for my toddler than it was for my baby, who won’t remember it at all.
A year later and my toddler still loves getting mail.
Pursue baby two’s arrival Today
You are set with baby items from your first. You also know exactly what a newborn is like both the hard parts and the amazing parts. What you don’t know is how to navigate your toddler becoming a big sister or brother.
Try to prep your toddler as much as possible for the big change ahead. Use play as much as possible by getting a baby doll with clothing and diapers and include them as the big helper. Use storytelling and write a social story so you toddler knows what to expect. Practice runs, while they might cause crying, will result in a easier time overall for your toddler.
Focus as much as you can on the big kid role and use it to your advantage to transition to a bedtime that anyone can do, add in quiet times and wean or switch to scheduled nursing.
Lastly, grab a cup of hot chocolate in the evenings and sit and read Siblings without Rivalry. Nothing will prepare you better than that book.