Why Children Misbehave When a New Baby Arrives - and How to Help

If you find yourself in this situation you need to prioritise your toddler or preschooler over your newborn, because they are hurting. Really, really hurting. Their whole world has turned upside down and inside out and they are experiencing grief like never before.

Have you just welcomed a second baby into your family? I bet there is a fairly high chance that you are seeing some, or indeed all, of the following behaviours from your firstborn:

  • Increased tantrums
  • Increased whining
  • Violence towards the new baby
  • Violence towards you
  • Refusal to go to anybody but mum
  • Sleep regression
  • Toileting regression

Common parental wisdom says things like "put them on the naughty step, or time out", "they have to learn that they aren't your only priority anymore", "they may be jealous, but you need to take control and nip their behaviour in the bud". All of this advice could actually make the problem worse. Much worse.

If you find yourself in this situation you need to prioritise your toddler or preschooler over your newborn, because they are hurting. Really, really hurting. Their whole world has turned upside down and inside out and they are experiencing grief like never before. Why? Imagine the following scenario:

Imagine you come home tonight and your partner greets you at the door and says "Hi honey, how was your day? I have a special surprise for you! I want to introduce you to my new partner! How exciting is that? he/she is coming to live with us and we can all be a big happy family. I understand right now that you may be a bit upset an confused, but I just know you are going to be great friends! I have more than enough love for both of you to go around!".

How would you feel? Angry? Sad? Shocked? Wondering why they felt the need for somebody else? Aren't you enough? Don't they care about you anymore? This may sound ridiculous and totally far-fetched, but imagine yourself in this scenario and you come to understand how the new big brother or sister are feeling. They didn't ask for the new baby, in fact they probably had no say in the decision making process. Their life with you was great, they had 100% of your attention, now they have 50% or less. Why did you need somebody else? Why weren't they enough for you? Why did you have to go and have another child?

Now if you felt like this, you may try to 'act out' in ways to try to diffuse your anguish. You may lash out physically, taking the worst of your anger out on your partner's new lover. Since they are the cause of your life crumbling to pieces. Perhaps you may shout, cry, whine that it isn't fair. Or perhaps you might be kept up at night, unable to sleep. From a toddler or preschooler perspective, their behaviour in these circumstances is normal for grief, shock, sadness and anger. All of the emotions that they experience. The very worst thing you can do as a parent is to amplify the disconnect with you that the child is feeling and ignore, punish or send them to time out. What message does this send? "No, you weren't enough for me, in fact I love the new baby more and don't want to be near you anymore". Not exactly the best footing to start a new sibling relationship on!

So, what do you do? Here are five tips to help with struggling new big brothers and sisters.

1. First and foremost you must empathise. You must understand how your child is feeling. Try to see through their 'naughty' behaviour to see the hurt and confusion they feel. All behaviour is communication, what is their's communicating to you? The worse the behaviour, the more they are hurting and need your attention, love and support.

2. Stop with the 'big boy' and 'big girl' talk. When you have a new baby your firstborn suddenly seems huge. Only they're not. Not really. You say things like "you're a big boy now", or "you've got a new big girl bed now". In your house who gets all of the attention now? The big children, or the little children (aka baby)? If your house is all about the little ones, being big doesn't seem very appealing. Especially if you've been turfed out of your 'little' cot, or room to make way for the new arrival. Have you ever wondered why new siblings may start to speak in baby talk, want to use a dummy, or start to breastfeed or bottle feed again? Here's your answer. Being little seems so much more appealing! Try as hard as you can to not talk about them 'being big'. Saying "you're still my baby" is so much better.

3. Spend one-to-one time with the older child. Specifically mum and older child, without the baby in the same room. Far too many new families organise for dad to take care of the toddler or preschooler, taking them to nursery or the park, while mum stays home with the baby, but the opposite needs to happen. Mum needs to do things alone with the older child while dad has baby, every single day. For breastfed babies, feed and run - most breastfed babies can cope without a feed for half an hour. Schedule this time into every day and focus on playing. Play is how children communicate and connect.

4. Keep things the same as much as possible for at least three months before the baby arrives and three months after. You absolutely don't want to be starting anything new with your older child that they may somehow attribute to the baby. For instance, don't move them out of their room, or your bed, to make way for the new arrival. Similarly don't potty train between 6 months of pregnancy until your newborn is 3 months old. Don't start or change nursery either if possible. Consistency and predictability spells security in your child's world.

5. Give the older child some responsibilities. Ask them to help with 'our' baby. What special jobs can they have? To fetch clean nappies and wipes? To get out the baby's pyjamas? To give them their dummy? The more your older child feels that they are involved in helping to take care of the baby with you the better. Also think about getting them their own doll (ideally the same gender as the new baby) and suggest that they may want to feed or change their doll while you take care of the baby. Make sure you tell them how helpful they are being and what an important part that they are playing "You are so much help with our new baby, thank you so much".

In time, hopefully you will create life long friends, but the initial few months, or even year, after the arrival of a new baby can be a tough transition for you all. The absolute key in creating a healthy sibling relationship is to empathise with your firstborn and what they are going through. They are not acting out of spite or jealousy, they are acting out of pain and confusion. You also need to learn to understand that sometimes, in fact a lot of the times, there are going to be times when you can't meet their needs, or the needs of either child. Accepting that you are only one person and sometimes one of them will have to cry is tough, but inevitable. If it is you struggling with the transition, check out my article HERE.

Sarah Ockwell-Smith is a mother of four and parenting author, her books include the bestselling 'The Gentle Sleep Book' and the recent release 'The Gentle Parenting Book'. She blogs at www.sarahockwell-smith.com

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