Your first-born, post newborn

Posted by Barbara F. Meltz  March 9, 2012 06:00 AM

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Dear Barbara,

I am an avid reader of your column and could use some guidance. I have a 3 1/2 year old girl who has always been easy-going and adaptive. She's seldom been trying or had tantrums. 8 weeks ago, we had a baby boy. She loves him. I'd read in your column to carve out 15 mins a day to spend with the older child when a baby arrives. Most days, she gets at least that. My son isn't taking long naps yet, though, so he still needs a lot of my attention during the day. My sweet girl has been throwing several tantrums a day, usually when she doesn't get her way and often over trivial things. It frustrates me since I am trying my best and upsets me because I am falling short and realize that this transition has been tough on her. By bedtime most nights, my body aches from holding in all of this tension and I feel harried.

Are there things I could be doing to ease this major transition for us? How should I handle the tantrum and let her know that she can't always get her way or have my undivided attention all of the time? Also, when can I expect things to get better? (They WILL get better, won't they?)

Thanks!
From: Worn out mom of 2, Wakefield, MA


Dear Worn Out,

Yes, it will get better! But this is a process that takes time and will have plenty of bumps along the way. My favorite anecdote (and I'm paraphrasing from my own book now) comes from a woman who hadn't seen any hostility from her 4-year-old toward the 3-month-old baby until one day, they were driving and the preschooler shouted, "Mom! Quick! Stop the car! I think I see a mailbox big enough to hold the baby!"

The mom nearly did pull over, but it was to keep from driving off the road because she had to work so hard to stifle her laughter.

So here are some tips for that next tantrum:

1. If you can see it coming, label her negative feelings even when they are not clearly related to the baby: "I bet you're wishing your brother hadn't been born." That will not plant ideas -- trust me, they're there, she just can't verbalize them.

2. Validate her feelings so she knows she doesn't have to keep them bottled up: "It's okay if you don't love the baby all the time." Period. Move on.

3. Acknowledge the truth. If she says, "She's always crying," tell her, "You know, it's true. Babies aren't much fun. All they do is sleep and eat and poop and pee and cry." And then remind her this isn't forever: "She won't always be a baby, though."

4. This is not the time to slack up on limit-setting and consistency; that will confuse and upset her even more -- she won't know which end is up -- and she'll act out even more to see what she has to do to get you to re-set the standard. Respond to tantrums exactly as you always would; don't give in to demands that you wouldn't have given in to six months ago. On the other hand, it's OK now and then to ease up if you establish that this is an exception: "You know what, let's do something different tonight!"

5. If some of the acting-out behavior is regressive, tolerate it but remind her gently, "It seems like it would be fun to be a baby again, doesn't it? But look at all the things you can do that the baby can't do!"

Some preschoolers feel left out of the new family, or even betrayed: "I must have done something wrong, so they went out and got this baby." That's why that 15 minutes of extra cuddle time can be so valuable, along with each parent spending time alone with her.

This blog is not written or edited by Boston.com or the Boston Globe.
The author is solely responsible for the content.

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3 comments so far...
  1. First of all, I wouldn't blame the baby. Three and a half year olds are notorious for major tantrums... it's developmental. They have figured out that you make choices about when/how things happen and they are much clearer on what they want (all my mommy friends agree that the terrible twos are misnamed, and it's really three that's hardest!). You'll see the tantrum behavior magically disappear (or almost so!) around her 4th birthday.

    As for adjusting to the new sibling, I think the *worst* thing you can do is feel guilty about your firstborn. She'll pick up on that because she is looking for cues from you about what this means for her. Talk to her instead about your excitement that she has a brother, what she can teach him/help him do, how she can help take care of him (because babies rely on us to help them) and what she can watch him learn ("see if you put your finger there, he can grab it, but he can't grab a toy yet"). I would often "explain" to the older kids what the baby is thinking "wow, look at him smile at you, he's saying I love my big sister" or "oh no, the baby is crying, he's saying I want to be able to sit up like my big sister".

    FWIW, I never found that "time alone" made any difference... I've found older children benefit a lot from one on one with parents, but younger children are more looking for guidance about how to deal with the sibling. What really matters is that she knows she can have your attention too when the baby is around. "Baby, you have to just wait (crying) a minute because I have to help your big sister with her shoe" That way you reassure her you are not putting the baby's needs over hers, and teach her that sometimes the baby's needs will come first too. A preschooler is all about fair, so that makes sense to them.

    A great book for preschoolers is "On Mother's Lap", with the message that there's enough mama love for all siblings :)

    Posted by Cathie Q March 9, 12 01:06 PM
  1. I agree with the comment above. Three is a very difficult age. Three-year-olds regularly throw tantrums whether they have siblings or not. I'd recommend having a "mommy's night out" once in a while to ease the tension you're feeling. She will eventually outgrow the tantrums, but it's important to minimize the toll they take on you.

    Posted by Lola March 9, 12 05:31 PM
  1. I was in a similar situation with my 3.5-year-old daughter and newborn
    son last year. I very much understand the end-of-the-day body aches that you describe. I also recall thinking that I had ruined my daughters life. We had a wonderful honeymoon period after the baby was born when my daughter was an overly enthusiastic third parent. However, when the baby wouldn't stop nursing every two hours around the clock and never wanted to be put down, my daughter started having a really tough time (understandable, since I was having a tough time too!). Specifically, she threw tantrums, had a horrible time with bed time, showed a lot of anxiety, and had a few accidents (which hadn't happened since before she was 2). We ended up getting some tips on differentiating tantrum vs. anxiety from a friend who is a social worker, which really helped since we addressed the tantrums by being firm and the anxiety with a lot of talking and reassurance. Mostly we just stuck it out with our tried-and-true routines, but I think that what really helped the most was just time. Things were quite tough until the baby was about 5 months old. Checking in with other friends with 2 kids, this seems to be a relatively common turning point. So, my main advice is to be consistent with your pre-baby methods and try to get yourself a break at least once every several days (this could even be getting to go to the grocery store by yourself -- just some nice non-kid time). Best of luck -- it does get better!

    Posted by AnotherMom March 22, 12 03:31 PM
 
3 comments so far...
  1. First of all, I wouldn't blame the baby. Three and a half year olds are notorious for major tantrums... it's developmental. They have figured out that you make choices about when/how things happen and they are much clearer on what they want (all my mommy friends agree that the terrible twos are misnamed, and it's really three that's hardest!). You'll see the tantrum behavior magically disappear (or almost so!) around her 4th birthday.

    As for adjusting to the new sibling, I think the *worst* thing you can do is feel guilty about your firstborn. She'll pick up on that because she is looking for cues from you about what this means for her. Talk to her instead about your excitement that she has a brother, what she can teach him/help him do, how she can help take care of him (because babies rely on us to help them) and what she can watch him learn ("see if you put your finger there, he can grab it, but he can't grab a toy yet"). I would often "explain" to the older kids what the baby is thinking "wow, look at him smile at you, he's saying I love my big sister" or "oh no, the baby is crying, he's saying I want to be able to sit up like my big sister".

    FWIW, I never found that "time alone" made any difference... I've found older children benefit a lot from one on one with parents, but younger children are more looking for guidance about how to deal with the sibling. What really matters is that she knows she can have your attention too when the baby is around. "Baby, you have to just wait (crying) a minute because I have to help your big sister with her shoe" That way you reassure her you are not putting the baby's needs over hers, and teach her that sometimes the baby's needs will come first too. A preschooler is all about fair, so that makes sense to them.

    A great book for preschoolers is "On Mother's Lap", with the message that there's enough mama love for all siblings :)

    Posted by Cathie Q March 9, 12 01:06 PM
  1. I agree with the comment above. Three is a very difficult age. Three-year-olds regularly throw tantrums whether they have siblings or not. I'd recommend having a "mommy's night out" once in a while to ease the tension you're feeling. She will eventually outgrow the tantrums, but it's important to minimize the toll they take on you.

    Posted by Lola March 9, 12 05:31 PM
  1. I was in a similar situation with my 3.5-year-old daughter and newborn
    son last year. I very much understand the end-of-the-day body aches that you describe. I also recall thinking that I had ruined my daughters life. We had a wonderful honeymoon period after the baby was born when my daughter was an overly enthusiastic third parent. However, when the baby wouldn't stop nursing every two hours around the clock and never wanted to be put down, my daughter started having a really tough time (understandable, since I was having a tough time too!). Specifically, she threw tantrums, had a horrible time with bed time, showed a lot of anxiety, and had a few accidents (which hadn't happened since before she was 2). We ended up getting some tips on differentiating tantrum vs. anxiety from a friend who is a social worker, which really helped since we addressed the tantrums by being firm and the anxiety with a lot of talking and reassurance. Mostly we just stuck it out with our tried-and-true routines, but I think that what really helped the most was just time. Things were quite tough until the baby was about 5 months old. Checking in with other friends with 2 kids, this seems to be a relatively common turning point. So, my main advice is to be consistent with your pre-baby methods and try to get yourself a break at least once every several days (this could even be getting to go to the grocery store by yourself -- just some nice non-kid time). Best of luck -- it does get better!

    Posted by AnotherMom March 22, 12 03:31 PM
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About the author

Barbara F. Meltz is a freelance writer, parenting consultant, and author of "Put Yourself in Their Shoes: Understanding How Your Children See the World." She won several awards for her weekly "Child Caring" column in the Globe, including the 2008 American Psychological Association Print Excellence award. Barbara is available as a speaker for parent groups.

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