Bringing another child into the fold, while exciting, isn't necessarily easy. No two kids are alike, so you're re-learning how to care for another tiny human, while simultaneously making sure you give enough love, attention, and support to their older sibling. There's an adjustment period, to be sure, and during that period it's not uncommon to wonder why your toddler keeps making the baby cry. Do they hate their sibling?! Do they hate you for bringing their sibling into the world?! Are they jealous?! Upset?! Have you made the biggest mistake ever?!
Romper spoke with Dr. Laura Markham, P.h.D., psychologist and founder of Ahaparenting.com, author of Peaceful Parent, Happy Siblings: How To Stop the Fighting and Raise Friends for Life,and Jen Lumanlan, M.S., M.Ed. host of the podcast Your Parenting Mojo, to better understand why it might seem like your toddler is upsetting your baby on purpose.
The good news, according to Dr. Markham and Lumanlan, is that sibling rivalry between your toddler and baby is absolutely typical. And not only is this behavior "normal," but there are ways you can help your child navigate their big emotions and feel supported as they learn how to live life as an older sibling.
It's easy to think that violent or aggressive behavior is a red flag that there's something wrong with your child, or that they are a "bully." Often, though, and according to the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), toddlers are aggressive because they feel big feelings but lack the communication skills to express those feelings calmly. Because they don't have an innate sense of self-control, according to the AAP, parents have to teach teach them not to kick, hit, or bite. This type of behavior is also a way for a toddler to get their parents' attention, especially at a time when they're feeling jealous or lonely.
"They will not think your new baby is a bundle of joy. Things aren't the way they used to be, and you aren't the way you used to be." So, they will act out, both to get your attention, and because they literally can't help themselves," Dr. Markham tells Romper. "It's important for parents to remember that toddlers don't understand cause and effect. Their prefrontal cortex is not fully developed, which is the part of the brain that gives us impulse control." According to Dr. Markham, if your toddler is feeling like the baby is taking up all of your attention, they might make them cry — not understanding that they're hurting the baby — in order to elicit a response.
While it might be upsetting to us to see our little one try to hurt their sibling or make them cry on purpose, it's also a valid emotional response, Dr. Markham says. "They might be actively angry at the baby for being on your lap all of the time. From their perspective, you just spent the last 45 minutes getting the baby to fall asleep. They want your attention and to show you that they matter, too."
At one point your toddler was your everything, Lumanlan says. "And now? Your toddler is one of two, and not the one who is getting most of the attention. All of a sudden your toddler has to 'be quiet, so you don't wake the baby,' 'be gentle, so you don't hurt the baby,' and 'go and play over there, because I need to feed the baby.' It's hardly surprising that they feel resentful of the baby's presence."
Lumanlan adds that you shouldn't dismiss these emotions. "It's important that we don't punish the toddler for making the baby cry," she says. "We need to try to understand the toddler's feelings and the needs underlying those feelings." If your toddler is verbal, you can ask them to help you, the parent, understand why they made their sibling cry. This will help your toddler discuss their feelings in a more productive way.
"Next, brainstorm ideas for what the two of you can do differently: this might include putting baby in a Pack 'n' Play when you are not able to supervise, or providing a basket of toys to be played with while you're feeding the baby," Lumanlan tells me.
To counteract the understandable big emotions your toddler is feeling, Dr. Markham suggests doing everything you can to ensure they know they are loved. "It's important to make sure each child knows they matter to you. As you put the baby to sleep, you might give your older child a special box of toys, let them watch TV, or listen to an audio book," she says. "You might even ask them to help put the baby to sleep. If your child feels like they are a part of the process, they will be way less likely to wake their baby up."
Lumanlan also suggests helping your toddler feel involved and important. "Try making the toddler responsible for keeping everyone quiet," she says. Saying something like, "It's baby's nap time so we all need to be quiet. Let's tiptoe down the hall together. Could you please remind me if you hear me speaking too loudly?'" could help your toddler feel like they're part of the now-larger family team.
Both Markham and Lumanlan recommend letting your toddler and baby learn to play independently, too. "Independent play is a developmental milestone," Dr. Markham says. "They become able to be in the room without being engaged with you at all times. As long as you respond when they need you, you should evaluate and admire their work, but not intrude." While it can be difficult for us to let go, Dr. Markham says we need to let our kids be. "Allow them to engage with the world in a safe place without interfering. You don't need to constantly entertain them. They don't need us. They will naturally learn to move their body. Our job is to reassure and help when needed."
Your toddler isn't the only one who doesn't need you every of every day, either. "Many babies are quite happy to play for stretches of time if they are just laid on a blanket on the floor with a parent nearby," Lumanlan tells Romper. "The parent can use this time to observe the baby with the toddler or simply let the baby be while the parent plays with the toddler."
Above all, recognize that there are big emotions at play, and your toddler isn't hurting the baby to be malicious. "Pay attention to the emotions. Even if the child is lovely with the baby, they will have mixed emotions. Reassure them that you'll always love them," Dr. Markham says. "If your toddler knows they can tell you how you are feeling and that you will respond to their needs, they will be less likely to hurt their sibling to get your attention."