When baby makes two

Deal­ing with a jeal­ous tod­dler

The Irish Times - Tuesday - Health - - Front Page - Sheila Way­man

The world as he knew it was about to end for my first child and he was bliss­fully unaware life would never be the same again. It was enough to re­duce me to tears on sev­eral oc­ca­sions.

I blame the preg­nancy hor­mones for get­ting so worked up about what the im­pend­ing ar­rival of a si­b­ling into the house was go­ing to mean for the baby’s two-year-old brother. Af­ter all, it is not ex­actly an un­com­mon ex­pe­ri­ence.

About a third of births in Ire­land are to women hav­ing a sec­ond child. The lat­est avail­able CSO fig­ures show that in 2016, of the 63,897 births, 22,611 (35.4 per cent), were to sec­ond-time moth­ers. Given that two years – give or take a few months – is a pop­u­lar time gap be­tween chil­dren, it can be pre­sumed that in the ma­jor­ity of cases, the older child was just a tod­dler when the baby ar­rived.

At a per­sonal rather than so­ci­etal level, that tran­si­tion from one-child fam­ily to two-child fam­ily is a very big deal in­deed – for the par­ents and, par­tic­u­larly, the tod­dler who ar­rived first. No sub­se­quent birth is likely to have quite the same im­pact on the fam­ily be­cause the “si­b­ling path” will no longer be un­known ter­ri­tory.

Par­ent­ing ex­pert Val Mul­lally, founder of Cork-based Koemba Par­ent­ing, be­lieves ex­pec­tant par­ents sec­ond-time-round do worry be­fore­hand about the psy­cho­log­i­cal ef­fect the new-born will have on their older child. But their em­pa­thy can wear thin in the heady, hor­monal and ex­haust­ing early days of hav­ing a baby in the house.

How­ever, short-tem­pered ex­as­per­a­tion from par­ents is likely to ex­ac­er­bate the “act­ing out” or de­vel­op­men­tal re­gres­sion that is quite nor­mal from a tod­dler who is try­ing to make sense of what has just hap­pened to his or her fam­ily.

It’s why Mul­lally has writ­ten a book, Baby and Tod­dler on Board – Mind­ful Par­ent­ing When a New Baby Joins the Fam­ily, one she hopes par­ents will read be­fore­hand.

Not, by the way, that you should re­fer to it as a “new baby” in front of the si­b­ling – Mul­lally learnt that when she heard a four-year-old child turn to her mother and ask: “Mummy, when you get the new baby, what hap­pens to me?”

“Think of it,” Mul­lally writes. “When you get the new car, the new sofa, the new TV – what hap­pens to the old one? It’s dis­carded!”

Try­ing to see what is go­ing on through the eyes of a young child can help a par­ent un­der­stand the best ac­tion to take that might avert or defuse chal­leng­ing be­hav­iour. It’s not a “tod­dler tam­ing book”, she stresses, rather one that en­cour­ages par­ents to per­ceive and re­spond to the young child’s ex­pe­ri­ence of life at the time of a new ar­rival. And not only the par­ents, but other adults in that child’s life, such as grand­par­ents, aunts and un­cles.

Talk­ing to Health + Fam­ily ahead of pub­li­ca­tion, Mul­lally rec­om­mends par­ents imag­ine for a mo­ment how they would feel if their beloved part­ner turned around to them and said “I love you so much” and then added “now I am go­ing to have two of you”. Even as ma­ture adults, we might be tempted to throw our toys out of the cot in protest.

How much harder for tod­dlers to cope with the “big emo­tions” that may flood them when they feel ig­nored as ev­ery­body coos over the new bun­dle. They don’t un­der­stand why they sud­denly have to share their par­ents and their brains are not ma­ture enough to reg­u­late their re­sult­ing feel­ings.

But clued-in adults can turn even the sim­ple act of “goo-goo ga-ga” to the tod­dler’s ad­van­tage. It’s not so much the words but the tone that mat­ters in new baby talk, Mul­lally points out. So in­stead of a run­ning com­men­tary on how cute the new­born is, take the op­por­tu­nity to af­firm the older, lis­ten­ing child, by bab­bling to the baby about his or her clever, kind, help­ful etc big brother or sis­ter.


What’s com­mon but not con­ducive to re­duc­ing fam­ily stress is when a well-mean­ing but more au­thor­i­tar­ian-in­clined grand­par­ent says of a tantrum­ing tod­dler, “you re­ally need to get that child to be­have now”. It’s only putting more pressure on the par­ents to feel they must con­trol the tot, when pa­tient guid­ing might be more pro­duc­tive.

“The more you in­sist, the more they re­sist,” Mul­lally points out. Rather, the goal should be to pro­mote mu­tual con­nec­tion and co-op­er­a­tion.

That doesn’t mean let­ting the tod­dler do what­ever they want. Apart from any­thing else, that wouldn’t make them happy ei­ther be­cause “a child with­out bound­aries feels emo­tion­ally un­safe – they need your guid­ance”. Let them make small de­ci­sions – “do you want to wear your red or your blue jumper?”, “do you want toast or a cracker?” – but be calm and con­sis­tent in hold­ing the line on mat­ters such as “you have to be strapped into your seat if we’re go­ing out in the car”.

Mul­lally took three years, on and off, to write this prac­ti­cal guide to par­ent­ing mind­ful­ness and find­ing peace in the fran­tic world of baby­hood and tod­dler­dom. She be­lieves this pe­riod of fam­ily life is the foun­da­tion on which the sib­lings’ own re­la­tion­ships will be built – with one an­other and, as they grow up, with other peo­ple.

It started with a jour­nal of ob­ser­va­tions of a fam­ily pre­par­ing for and ad­just­ing to a sec­ond child. From that emerged three strands, which take a sec­tion each in the fin­ished book: fol­low the child’s lead; cross the bridge; and hearth the home. There is more of a fo­cus on in­ter­ac­tion with the tod­dler rather than the baby, with real-life sit­u­a­tions be­ing il­lu­mi­nated by in­sights gath­ered from neuro-science, child psy­chol­ogy and the au­thor’s ex­pe­ri­ence as a teacher, par­ent and now grand­par­ent.


Mul­lally be­lieves that “cross­ing the bridge” is the most im­por­tant as­pect of the ap­proach she is ad­vo­cat­ing, which in­volves ver­bal­is­ing the tod­dler’s ex­pe­ri­ence. To do that, you have to be in the child’s world – park your car with all your “stuff”, your emo­tions and judg­ments, on one side of the bridge and go over to the child’s side.

“This is im­por­tant be­cause we can re­spond to the child’s needs when we per­ceive their per­spec­tive. Then we’ll dis­cover how to cre­ate the win-win so­lu­tions that both tod­dler and par­ent need to thrive.”

For in­stance, if a child says, “I don’t like the baby,” and we re­ply, “Of course you do, you love your sis­ter,” we deny the re­al­ity he’s ex­pe­ri­enc­ing, whereas he needs sup­port with what­ever emo­tions he is feel­ing at that mo­ment.

“Emo­tions aren’t right or wrong – they are the com­pass to nav­i­gate re­la­tion­ship,” Mul­lally says. “We can re­spond to his expe-

Short-tem­pered ex­as­per­a­tion from par­ents is likely to ex­ac­er­bate the ‘act­ing out’ or de­vel­op­men­tal re­gres­sion that is quite nor­mal from a tod­dler

ri­ence: ‘You don’t like the baby. Tell me more’.”

Equally, us­ing “time out” is not rec­om­mended at the best of times but “cross the bridge” and imag­ine how it would feel in these cir­cum­stances for a child placed “out” while the baby is “in” with the par­ent, says Mul­lally. The iso­la­tion can feel like aban­don­ment, which may trig­ger panic and a des­per­a­tion to re­con­nect with the par­ent at any cost – ei­ther through at­ten­tion-grab­bing be­hav­iour or say­ing sorry when they don’t mean it.

‘Cross­ing the bridge’

“Cross­ing the bridge” might sound easy but our own thoughts can get in the way and we tend to see our agenda as the pri­or­ity. Of course, get­ting out of the house when we’re due some­where might be ur­gent to us but tod­dlers don’t take their time over some­thing to de­lib­er­ately make us late. Flex­i­bil­ity and cre­ativ­ity in han­dling frus­trat­ing mo­ments can make a big dif­fer­ence to the out­come.

“No tod­dler gets up in the morn­ing and says ‘I’m go­ing to make my par­ents’ life hell to­day’,” says Mul­lally. Even if it some­times feels like that.

Rather, their “bad” be­hav­iour is prob­a­bly a sign they feel they are not re­ceiv­ing the at­ten­tion they crave from their par­ent,

in all prob­a­bil­ity the mother, who in­evitably will have to be more hands-on with the baby. Rep­ri­mands of the “don’t be naughty” va­ri­ety are more likely to alien­ate than re­as­sure.

“When you scold or threaten, the mes­sage your child hears is, ‘you’re not okay’,” Mul­lally ex­plains. A big hug might be more help­ful – for both sides.

In the face of the emo­tional and prac­ti­cal de­mands on the mother at this time, it makes sense that the fa­ther be­comes the tod­dler’s great­est ally in ad­just­ing. Moth­ers can be in­clined to act as “gate-keeper” to the fa­ther-child re­la­tion­ship first-time around, so it’s a real op­por­tu­nity for deeper pa­ter­nal bond­ing when she is pre­oc­cu­pied with the new-born.

Apart from the prac­ti­cal con­cerns we may have about cop­ing af­ter the birth of a sec­ond child, don’t par­ents of­ten se­cretly worry be­fore­hand about whether they could re­ally love two equally?

“It’s not about lov­ing chil­dren equally but rather uniquely,” Mul­lally replies. “They will be dif­fer­ent.”

Baby and Tod­dler on Board – Mind­ful Par­ent­ing When a New Baby Joins the Fam­ily, by Val Mul­lally (Orla Kelly Pub­lish­ing) will be pub­lished as a paper­back and e-book on No­vem­ber 19th, 2018


San­dra Town­ing with sons Aaran and Ryan at their home in Shan­bal­ly­more, Co Cork.

Val Mul­lally: “No tod­dler gets up in the morn­ing and says ‘I’m go­ing to make my par­ents’ life hell to­day’.” Be­low: Her new book, Baby and Tod­dler on Board – Mind­ful Par­ent­ing When a New Baby Joins the Fam­ily

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