Help Your Toddler Sleep After a New Sibling Arrives

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  • August 03, 2010

new siblingsOnce children learn to sleep well, they can take change in stride. They can become, as one mom I worked with called her toddler, an “Olympic sleeper.” Some kids do get thrown off by common childhood illnesses,  travel and the like  — although you can get them back on track very easily either by doing a quicker-paced, mini-version of my “Sleep Lady Shuffle” or by being extra vigilant about schedules and routines for a few days until you get your toddler sleeping again.

One event that is likely to cause some understandable regression and bedtime disruption even among sleep champs is the birth of a new baby brother or sister. The older child might have temper tantrums, or regress and ask for things they had outgrown, such as a diaper, bottle or pacifier.  They may come up with some urgent, pressing, absolutely-need-this-very-minute demands every time you start to nurse the new baby.

Not surprisingly, sleep is often affected. If the older child starts waking up more frequently at night, just walk him quietly back to bed. Don’t scold him, but don’t let him engage you either, just get him gently back to bed. If he’s waking up because he hears the baby, explain that everything is okay, that new little babies need to wake up and eat but soon the baby will sleep all night just like his big brother or sister. Remind him during the daytime, too, if he’s old enough to understand.

If he starts demanding more and more of your attention at bedtime, drawing it out, you might try starting his bedtime earlier so he has longer to unwind and have more of that special cozy time with you. (Depending on everyone’s nursing and sleeping schedules, this might only work if both parents are at home). Or you could involve him in the baby’s bedtime, making him feel part of it. For instance, you can have him “help” you read the baby a simple story before reading an “older” story to him. Maybe you can read to him while nursing the baby. No matter how busy you get with the new baby, it’s essential that you spend special one-on-one time with the older child every day.

If the baby is sleeping in your room for the first few months, and your child knows that he used to be there, explain that the arrangement is temporary, that the baby will go to her own room (or their shared room) as soon as she doesn’t have to eat during the night as much.

If your older child is co-sleeping with you, please don’t kick him out of bed to make room for the new baby! Keep the baby in a bassinet near the bed, or in a co-sleeper sidecar adjacent to the bed, but don’t add to the older child’s feeling of dislocation. This will help your toddler sleep. Some parents temporarily have the father sleep with the older child in the child’s room, while Mom sleeps with the baby in the parents’ room.  (Although I would be careful about this last option – it could become a hard habit to break).

In general, I believe in keeping children in cribs as long as you can. If you are going to transition a child to a bed before the birth of a sibling, do it at least two and as long as six months before the birth. If you wait until after the new baby is born, give it at least four months. Please don’t rush this transition  just because you need a crib, particularly if the older child is under the age of two. If your older child is still happy in his crib, leave him there, and buy or borrow another crib for the new baby, even a secondhand one, or keep the newborn in a bassinet for a few months. Occasionally an older child who is already in a bed will want his crib back, rather than see the little usurper in it. He may say that, if he has the words, or he may show you, for instance by climbing into the baby’s crib at every opportunity.  I would highlight all the advantages of having a “big boy” bed. Point out all the other things that he gets to do with you that a baby doesn’t – like going to swing at the playground or eating cookies.  Crib envy is usually his way of voicing a fear that he is being replaced, so just keep giving him all the reassurance he needs. But if he’s still pretty young and hadn’t  been in a bed too long, don’t rule out giving him the crib back if you haven’t already given it away.

As you know the most important thing you can do for the older child is to reassure him of your love. Keep telling him how much you enjoy having a big boy or girl. Stress his “big kid” privileges. Tell him how lucky the baby is to have such a great big brother or sister, and how much the baby will adore him. Make sure your visitors make just as big a fuss about your big guy as your little one. Give the older child some jobs to do; let him fetch a diaper, or help wash the baby’s toes. Remind him of the safety rules too – no touching the baby’s face, no throwing things or picking up the baby without Mommy or Daddy’s help, and definitely no waking up the baby when he’s sleeping. When he sleeps well, or goes to bed without interfering with the baby’s needs, make sure you give him lots and lots of praise.

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photo credit: i am brad via photopin cc

Kim West
Kim is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker who has been a practicing child and family therapist for more than 24 years, and the creator of the original gentle, proven method to get a good night’s sleep for you and your child. She is the author of The Sleep Lady's Good Night Sleep Tight, its companion Workbook and 52 Sleep Secrets for Babies. Click here to read more about her.

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5 Comments

  • halls says:

    my son was an amazing sleeper.. he is just two.. we just brought new baby home 3 nights ago and each night it has escalated to a different event. tonight is the worst. We have never heard the screams like this coming from his room.  What do we do to help get our amazing sleeper back… how do we reassure him of our love (we are telling him all the time) so he’s not scared or felt left out or whatever else he is feeling that he is unable to express to us right now. 

    • krg7il says:

      @halls Did this get resolved.  What did you do, and how long did it take?  We have a 12 month old and he just started doing the same thing, screaming uncontrollably.

  • Triciaann45 says:

    My daughter lives with me and she just brought home her 4th child 3 weeks ago.  She co-sleeps with her 2 year old and was trying to co-sleep with the newborn as well but the 2 year old has started kicking and yelling at all hours of the night, keeping her and the newborn up.  I suggested and have brought him into my room so she can get some much needed rest and he started kicking me.  We really want him to start sleeping with his older two brothers (6 and 7) in their room but not sure how to make this transition without upsetting everyone.  We definitely don’t want to alienate the 2 year old. Any suggestions?

  • breefawn says:

    Triciaann45 That is a tough situation to be in! I would post your question to http://www.facebook.com/thesleeplady wall for the Gentle Sleep Coach 🙂 She should be able to give you some good advice. Good luck!

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