New Baby Making Toddler Clingy
Kai is my 26 month old son. Maryn, my daughter, was born 4 1/2 months ago.
Until about a month ago, Kai was happy-go-lucky minus the now and then tantrum. Lately though, he has become very clingy to me. He demonstrates his usual affection for his Nana and his Daddy, but he's constantly wanting me to carry him, hold him, sit with him, etc, etc.
I'm pretty sure all this has to do with Maryn. He adores her: he kisses her, ruffles her unruly hair, asks to hold her, plays with her. But just when I'm settling in to nurse her, its, "NO, Mama! Maryn no milk!" or "Kai-Kai milk too?" And he proceeds to whimper and if I try to reassure him it evolves into a tantrum if I don't attend to getting his milk or pull him onto my knee while Maryn nurses. He also insists I do everything for him, especially changing his diaper. If Dad wants to change it, it's, "NO! Mama do it!" He tags along with me absolutely everywhere, even to the bathroom. Last night he had a fit when I stepped into the shower. He stood outside the curtain and yelled until I finished and picked him up. Before Maryn's birth he could perhaps do 20 min of independent play in another room. Now, none.
As you can imagine, I'm exhausted and sometimes overwhelmed. I get some breaks here and there as my moms helps me a lot.
Anyway, my questions are these:
1) Do you agree this behavior is a symptom of insecurity because of Maryn's presence?
2) I've gotten along pretty well thus far by telling myself "This is a stage, it's not going to last forever." How long do you think this one may last? Give me some hope!
3) Do you have any helpful tips to help me cope and help reassure him and get him through this "stage".
By-the-way, Maryn is the happiest baby on the planet and pretty easy to care for. I only feel guilty that I'm not giving her as much attention as I'd like. But she seems to be doing just fine.
First, how wonderful that Maryn is such a happy baby, and that you have two healthy, happy children. I agree with your theory that Kai's current clinginess is his response to Maryn's entry into your family. He can adore her and still wish he had you all to himself. Most kids experience a period of panic when a new baby is introduced into the family, so Kai's reaction is completely normal.
But this is also a normal developmental stage even without the new baby. From birth to adulthood, our kids develop and grow, becoming ever more independent, but it isn't ever a straight line. It's often more like two steps forward, one step back. At 26 months, he is intellectually mature enough to know that he is a separate person, and you come and go. But he is emotionally dependent enough to feel that his very life depends on you. He realizes that he is very small and that losing you would threaten his very survival. He may look like a little boy to you, especially in contrast to his baby sister, but to Kai, he is still your baby and needs you with the same intensity that she does.
So Kai is going through a clingy stage that all kids cycle in and out of as they grow up, at precisely the same time that he notices someone else on your lap nursing. We can understand why he's on hyper-alert mode – and why you would be exhausted and overwhelmed!
How long will this stage last? That's always hard to say, but as he gets used to the idea of having a baby around, and realizes that you are just as present for him as you always have been, he will certainly relax somewhat. You can help him along developmentally, and probably shorten this stage, by offering him extra reassurance. That will be a challenge, since you also have a four month old. But if you can pre-empt his demands by offering FIRST, without him having to be demanding to get his needs met, he will become less demanding.
Here's an illustration of why this works that most moms can relate to. Imagine asking your sweetheart if he loves you. If he says yes, are you really convinced? No, of course not -- because you had to ask. Now imagine your sweetheart volunteering, unsolicited, to tell you how much he loves you. Aren't you much more likely to feel secure and loved?
So how do you put this into practice with a toddler?
1. Revise your mindset to see that from his point of view, he is totally dependent on his “special person” and needs you desperately. You really have two babies. Then, you'll anticipate his needs just the way you do hers. You'll keep his bottle or cup ready in the fridge so when Maryn wants to nurse, you can grab both kids and make a quick stop for his milk before you plop down on the couch with both babies.
2. Remind yourself that he is terrified, right now, of losing you, and work to reassure him that you'll always be there for him. The is the most essential way to ease his sibling rivalry. When you are about to be separated -- and little ones experience even a shower, when we are unavailable, as a separation – first get him occupied with someone or something else. Develop little separation rituals, rather than just disappearing, so he knows he can count on your return. Luckily, he is verbal, so you can give him language, such as "Mommy LOVES Kai! Mommy ALWAYS comes back."
3. Give him the message that you take his needs seriously, and won't force him to grow up before he's ready. In other words, don't push him or shame him to be a "big boy." Cuddle him and tell him that he will always be your baby. That way he knows that no matter what his sister gets, there is more than enough for him. Only by getting our dependency needs met are we able to move beyond them. But at the same time, when he shows any signs of independence, reinforce that tendency by giving him positive attention. "Wow, I opened the refrigerator door, but you grabbed your bottle all by yourself!" or "You sat right outside the shower and played with your cars the whole time I washed my hair. You must be so proud of yourself!"
4. Acknowledge his ambivalence about the baby, which is really just his worry about getting his own needs met. If he says "NO Maryn. Hold Kai!" you can say "You want me to hold you, not Maryn." Then reassure him: "Don't worry, I can hold both of you on my lap. I love you both, I'm your mommy and I'm Maryn's mommy." If he says "Maryn NO milk!" you can respond, "You want milk too! Everybody needs milk. There's enough milk for everybody! Here's your milk. Here's Maryn's milk."
5. Help him process emotionally by reading him books about "the new baby" in which the older sibling initially is worried but eventually makes peace with the baby. Here's a list of great books for big siblings; great to print out and take to the library.
6. Avoid power struggles with him and minimize discipline as much as possible. It's ok to "spoil" him a bit by letting him make choices about who changes him, etc. That way he'll feel more in control of his world -- which, after all, just got turned topsy turvy by Maryn's arrival.
7. Spend some time alone with him each day. Luckily, Maryn doesn't sound like a high need baby, so you can do this. I consider spending time alone with each child to be one of the most important basic parenting practices for healthy kids. And right now, given that he's in a panic about staying connected to you, he especially needs time each day when he can count on being the most important thing in the world to you – because, of course, that's how he feels about you all the time.
8. Plan a little bit of structure for your days so that you get out and about in ways that are enjoyable and not taxing. This will help you stay grounded so you don't feel so beaten down by the needs of two kids, and will help Kai know what to expect every day and give him something to look forward to. Most important, it will give Kai the chance to expand his horizons beyond you and the baby and connect with playmates. Nothing pressured or complicated, just simple outings like "Mondays we go to the wading pool, Wednesdays we go to the library, Fridays we go to the playground."
I encourage you also to get your hands on a copy of my book Peaceful Parent, Happy Siblings. Part 3 of the book is devoted to the stage you're in right now and has many ideas that won't fit into a short answer like this. (And the rest of the book will guide you through the next ten years of sibling issues!) I hear constantly from parents that the book has changed their lives. Here's the link:
Finally, I urge you to let everything else slide for a few months except nurturing yourself and your little ones. They both need you a lot right now, and
your being rested, cheerful and nurturing to them has to be your priority. Next time Kai has a meltdown, take a deep breath, remind yourself that you're
the center of his world and he desperately needs your reassurance, and be grateful that you have two healthy children who adore you. And don't worry.
This too shall pass.
Thank you so very much, Dr. Laura. I needed that and you hit the nail on the head. I had not been seeing the situation through Kai's eyes. I had figured out why he was behaving as he was, but I was not then moving on to empathize. I think I'll read your reply frequently to remind myself how Kai sees it. And I needed also to hear the "permission" you gave me to let everything else slide. I've been doing that just to survive of late and have not felt good about it. (I'm an MD who has decided to be a mainly SAHM, so convincing myself that what I'm doing IS productive is an hourly exercise.) Right, you've empowered me to throw myself into motherhood yet again. And to reframe my view of my little boy. I'm most grateful.