The ups and downs of helping a toddler prepare for the arrival of a new sibling

woman hugging toddler girl - preparing a toddler for a new sibling
Aleksandra Jankovic/Stocksy

My two-and-a-half-year-old and I were both sitting on the floor, crying. In the other room, my husband bounced the screaming infant who had just turned our lives upside down.

I had done everything I could to prepare my daughter for the arrival of her baby sister. I had read books and blog posts, talked through the pros and cons of having a baby in the family and gifted a stuffed cat “from” her baby sister that I thought would be a hit (it was).

Recently, I’d been trying to follow the advice in Joanna Faber and Julie King’s “How to Talk so Little Kids Will Listen”—acknowledging emotions and trying to work with my toddler when she had meltdowns rather than waiting them out. I figured this would help her cope better with the drama of introducing a new child to the family.

It took me a while to get used to the practice of verbalizing and accepting certain emotions and desires. Especially when she wanted something unreasonable—by acknowledging her desire rather than dismissing it, I felt as though I would need to address it. (“You really don’t want to eat that cereal. You want something else for breakfast.”)

But the real point was to help her work through her feelings, and when I acknowledged how she felt, it took less time for her to get over the crisis and decide she was willing to eat her cereal after all. It seemed totally counterintuitive, yet it was starting to work, little by little.

One piece of advice that really hit home was that no parent is perfect. You can never respond in the exact right way to every crisis with your young child. The most important part is to try again the next time and the next—to let tempers cool and then mend things, to let your child know that even if things fall apart, there’s a way back.

As the day of our second daughter’s birth drew near, my toddler was acting more volatile than usual. I could tell she was worried. All the preparation in the world couldn’t give her an idea of how much her world was about to change.

And then, suddenly, she became a big sister.

In some ways, she was the perfect sister—gentle, caring, always wanting to help out and be involved.

In other ways, she was out of control. We found ourselves toddler-proofing the house for the first time, because our once rule-abiding little girl suddenly refused to listen no matter how many times we told her to stop doing something. Houseplants were damaged, phones were thrown on the ground and she was spitting and biting and pinching like she’d never done before. On top of that, she developed a whiny keen that wasn’t quite crying, which she employed whenever she didn’t get exactly what she wanted. It drove me crazy.

Was I doing this all wrong?

I knew she was struggling to adapt to her new sister. As maddening as her behavior was, it was heartbreaking as well. I wanted to be the same mother I had been before, but I was exhausted and didn’t have the time to honor our usual rituals. I loved her so much, yet I couldn’t seem to get past the combativeness to show her my affection. When she was upset, she pushed me away. She didn’t want cuddles.

It was this combination of toddler obstinance and post-birth hormones that led to the low moment where we were both crying on the floor. I had spent 45 minutes fighting to get her to nap, finally resorting to a bribe, and when she woke up, she was still miserable. Soon she was crying again, and she crawled under a chair and started hitting her head against the leg. I had never seen her act that way before.

“Do you want a cuddle?” I asked.

She pushed me away, still crying.

“I think you’re feeling upset because you didn’t like how your nap went earlier.”

More crying.

“Maybe you’re frustrated that the baby is taking up so much of my time, and you wish I could still spend time with you like I did before. I wish I could, too.”

She was still wailing, and I wasn’t even sure she could process what I was saying, given how upset she was. But I kept going, trying to put her emotions into words and show that I wanted to understand what she was going through. Then the baby started crying, and I felt helpless to fix the mess my family had become. Soon I was crying too.

It wasn’t until after dinner that our toddler finally settled down. I took over her bedtime routine, wanting a bit of quiet time with her, and was gratified when it went smoothly. I felt so guilty for how badly everything had gone earlier that day. Could I have handled things better and prevented the naptime battle that had spiraled into such an epic meltdown? I had tried so hard to work with her, to help her process her emotions in a more productive way. But nothing had made a difference. Was I doing this all wrong?

At last we finished our bedtime stories and I tucked her in, giving her a cuddle and a kiss. As I turned to go, she said in a rush, “I love you! I love you so much!”

It was the first time she had ever said those words.

Maybe trying had been enough.