The attitude graph: How our toddler is adjusting to having a baby sister

There's a new kid in town, and helping your firstborn understand is no easy job.

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I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve been asked how baby No.1 is going since we brought our second home from the hospital, but there is a clear trend to how my answer to that question is changing over time.

Thursday July 28 at 12:38pm is when we welcomed little Isabella Evie into the world, almost two years to the day since our firstborn Mila Sage was born.

The first month was an adjustment, but things like bathing, changing nappies, feeding, and even just holding Issy felt like getting back on the bike again.

Having confidence the second time around gives you time to appreciate things that you might have missed with your first, like the little noises she makes, or the expressions you notice on her face.

It’s like watching your favourite movie for the second time…

Except this time someone let a whinging, jealous, screaming toddler loose in the cinema.

A two-year-old child is not easily won over, and you can’t just hide your newborn and only bring her out every so often when she’s quiet.

That’s where the parenting challenge has been.

The adjustment starts early

We knew Mila could sense something was going on as early as the second trimester of the pregnancy, she just didn’t know what.

She was very clingy to her mum, and she didn’t want a bar of me unless I was warming her milk or gatekeeping her chance at a sneaky Wiggles episode or two.

It’s mind-blowing seeing her brain ticking for the first time, knowing something is happening, and watching the behaviour that follows.

When it clicked and she started saying things like “baby sister” and “baby tummy” while pointing to Liz, we were fit to burst.

We started introducing a few things into the household to help Mila prepare for the arrival of a sister.

We got her a baby doll that made crying noises until you popped a dummy into its mouth or a bottle.

Liz bought her a book about being a big sister, and organised a gift from “baby sister”. We got her to speak to Liz’s belly and say hello to her baby sister, and give her kisses and cuddles.

I was sure all that effort had worked, but when Issy was born Mila didn’t seem all that interested to start with.

At the hospital, shortly after the birth, she was more interested in running up and down the hallways than she was in meeting he baby sister or hanging out with her recovering Mum.

She stayed with my parents a fair bit over those first few days, and then we brought Issy home. That’s when things started to change.

The attitude graph

So how is baby No.1 going? And how has my answer to that question changed over time? Maybe the best way to explain this is with a graph.

Imagine the horizontal axis is days, while the vertical axis represents Mila’s attitude (out of 10).

The first three days at home Mila was waking up saying “baby sister!”. She was over the moon and her attitude was a 10 out of 10 on the graph.

But after that her excitement falls of a cliff as the realisation dawns on her that all the attention isn’t devoted to her any more.

I can’t blame her, it’s a huge change for someone so small whose entire life has only been full of Mum and Dad being devoted to anything she needs or asks for.

She can’t cuddle Mum whenever she wants now, because mum is feeding Issy. Dad can’t get her milk straight away because Dad is washing Issy’s bottle. I can imagine the thoughts going through her head as she surveys the changes on an hourly basis.

“I used to sit in that swing.”

“That bear is mine, why is baby sister holding it?” 

“And what is this bigger bed I’m sleeping in now? What happened to my cot? My room changed around the same time baby sister came home!”

We struggled a fair bit with that last one. We were due to move her out of the cot and into her new bed, but it’s hard to time these things (and when you have two weeks of paternity leave up your sleeve you make the most of it).

If we had our time over I think we’d try and get those bigger changes to her life organised quicker, but you can only plot life on a graph retrospectively.

I’ve learnt it’s really important not to beat yourself up too much over the things you might change if you had your time over, and it’s important to keep in mind the things you did get right.

Remember all that effort I mentioned about introducing things into the household to help Mila prepare for the arrival of a sister? You won’t see the results all the time, but in fleeting moments when I catch Mila smiling at Issy, I like to think they worked.

Our actions matter

I’ve combed through websites and blog posts, reading the stories of other parents to learn how they’ve handled the changes for their eldest.

As usual, it’s a little different for everyone, but for us it’s been a matter of being more mindful of our own actions and working on being a lot more understanding of what Mila’s going through.

The hardest thing I’ve found is trying to catch myself if I say things that would make Mila feel like the changes are her responsibility to deal with. I don’t want her thinking:

“I’m not allowed to scream too loud because it will wake baby sister.”

“Dad is saying I don’t need the iPad because baby sister doesn’t want it.”

“I have to be careful whenever I get close to baby sister.”

“Mum and dad always watched me go down the slide why aren’t they watching it this time?”

“I was here first damn it! Who the hell does this baby sister think she is?!”

When you’ve been running around after a toddler all day and you’re back into a routine of nights with little to no sleep, it’s easy to lose your cool and take the easy option of telling your kids off rather than thinking it through.

One of my fears with two kids is watching them grow up competitively. I know kids will compete occasionally, but I hope we can raise them to be fair with each other, to love each other and support each other.

We’re including Mila where we can, and she’s really starting to enjoy being more involved with Issy.

That’s what seems to be working for us the most – making Mila understand that she’s a part of the family as much as anyone by being involved with what’s happening as much as everyone.

And when I see things like this, I start to feel confident that graph might just start heading back up towards “baby sister!” again.

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