Welcoming a new baby to his siblings is a joyful time, sure. But it’s also a bit of a mess.
Toddlers, with their lack of frontal lobe development, emotional regulation, and executive functioning skills, can take the arrival of a new sibling especially hard. That leaves newborn parents, already sleep-deprived, adding tantrum taming and jealousy placating to the daily load.
That was our experience, anyway. The most difficult part of Tiny A’s “fourth trimester” (the first three months of a newborn’s life) was juggling the needs of a newborn with two toddlers.
Hell Hath No Fury Like A Big Brother
When the new baby arrived into our life, the older boys felt insecure and jealous, jarred by the new schedule. So they acted out.
Which is developmentally appropriate, by the way. But the added stress of drastic change temporarily upped their audacity. The boys were getting into everything, fighting each other, throwing themselves to the ground and shrieking at the slightest provocation or inconvenience.
I turned to parenting strategist Dana Al-Sarraj for insight. She explained why toddlers found the arrival of a new baby so upsetting.
What if your husband came home and said, ‘Honey, I’ve enjoyed being married to you so much that I’m bringing a new wife home! She’ll wear all your clothes, I’ll coo over and cuddle her, and we’ll all hang out.’
That’s what it feels like for big siblings. One day, their caregivers tell them that a smaller replacement of them will be arriving, and then it actually does! Oof, man. In a time of uncertainty and feeling ignored, Big and Little A were attempting to control their environment and our attention.
Attention As Grades of Beef (Stay With Me)
“Think of [caregiver] attention like grades of beef,” explains Al-Sarraj. “Grade ‘A’ is getting all the attention, full eye contact, and engagement, the phone put away. With each grade, the attention quality goes down.” To toddlers, attention from caregivers is like sunlight and air. They will always find a way to get our attention. It’s vital to their lives.
Newborn parents are so busy and stressed. We were throwing a lot of Grade “F” attention around (like yelling “don’t do that!” while feeding the baby from the couch).
If toddlers aren’t getting enough quality (Grade A) attention, they will put themselves, purposely, in situations that call for Grade F attention (like yelling). They will work for any kind of attention they can get. If that means, Grades D, E, and F, so be it.
Giving Big Siblings The Best Attention
Dana advised that we work to institute two types of Grade “A” attention throughout the day: GEMs (Genuine Encounter Moments) and PS (Personal Special Time).
Our toddlers stopped acting out as much when we started giving them purposeful, Grade “A” attention. There was no need for them to bid for lower grade attention. They were getting enough small shots of quality time with us throughout the day.
Genuine Encounter Moments
Genuine Encounter Moments are small moments of parent-child connection throughout the day. GEMs are an attempt to raise what would normally be a low-grade act of attention into a higher grade. To put it very bluntly, GEMs are meant to replace dismissals.
When Dana said this, I thought, “I’m not dismissive towards my kids!” But I am sometimes. And I bet you are too. We’re not cruel, just busy adults with a lot on our plate.
When I started really listening to myself, I realized I was dismissive towards my children several times a day. Little A may run up to with a toy in his hands. I’m doing the dishes so I drop a dismissive murmur: “That’s nice, sweetie.” I don’t really engage or make eye contact, because, again, I’m busy.
GEMs encourage caregivers to take a moment to fully engage. With GEMs in mind, I now remove my hands from the soapy water, bend to Little A’s level, and say, “Wow, that toy is so cool. Thanks for showing it to me.” Little A runs off, feeling seen and valued, and I finish my task.
Personal Special Time
While genuine encounter moments are spontaneous, natural interactions, Personal Special Time (PS) is a scheduled, purposeful, time for one-on-one attention.
These times can be brief, as little as ten minutes. It doesn’t really matter what is done during this quality time, only that the child picks the activity.
Personal Special Time should happen on a schedule that children can trust. Caregivers should never, ever take PS away as a punishment for negative behavior.
Helping Big Siblings By Scheduling Attention
To institute GEMs and PS, Dana says, “Start bringing your awareness.” No one can stop themselves from doing something if they’re not aware when they’re doing it. Pay attention. When you’re busy, how many times do you rebuff your child?
When I caught myself about to throw out a “that’s nice,” I’d stop myself and be in the moment. I’d lock eyes with my son and genuinely engage for 30-60 seconds.
Al-Sarraj recommends 5 genuine encounter moments a day and 3-5 personal special times a week, but these are more guidelines than hard and fast rules. Some working parents only see their children for a couple of hours before bed, so fitting five GEMS into that window would be difficult. That’s why awareness is so important. If you know you have a day or weekend off, try to fit in as many GEMS in that time as possible.
Secure Big Siblings Aren’t As Yell-y
Dropping GEMS throughout the day and scheduling weekly PS sessions took the boys from Def-Con 5 to Def-Con 1.8.
We try our hardest to do PS early in the morning. Starting the day with one-on-one playtime fills the boys with enough attention to better amuse themselves when our attention is more occupied later.
Some days, I can only give two GEMS, other days seven.
It doesn’t matter. It matters that I try. And, that, when I do, their little faces light up.
This is the first article in a series about navigating newborn parent life. What did you find especially difficult when welcoming a new baby into your home? Is there anything else you found especially trying about this season of life? Let me know in the comments.