By Alexis Barad-Cutler
A toy that cost under $20 helped create a brotherly bond between my toddler and his newborn brother. I know, it sounds crazy, but it really did. A couple of weeks before my due date, someone had mentioned to me the importance of having a gift at the hospital "from the baby" ready for when big brother and baby met for the first time. I was familiar with the "push present" (the gift from dad to mom as a reward for creating and birthing another human), but I had never heard of the "sibling present."
As soon as I heard the idea, however, I couldn't argue its genius. Toddlers are at a stage in emotional development where they are beginning to be aware of empathic acts such as kindness, thoughtfulness and sharing. So the concept of the new baby having had the forethought to pick out a gift for his big sibling is one my son readily warmed to. It also helped him begin to envision his baby brother as a real person with feelings.
When my toddler came to the hospital to visit me and meet his new brother, it was strangely awkward at first. I know it sounds weird, but it felt like we were ex-lovers who had each gone through some rather huge milestone life changes and had to kind of re-navigate our relationship to one another after having spent some time apart. I felt a little guilty for having already fallen in love with my newborn and for being away from my toddler for a few nights. So after my toddler shyly entered the hospital room and took a peek at his new brother, I immediately found myself pointing to the small, wrapped gift I'd had my husband put in the corner of the windowsill earlier that morning.
"Look what your baby brother got for you!" I said. My toddler's expression went quickly from cautious uncertainty (from seeing mommy in a hospital setting, from the weirdness of there being a baby in the picture, from mommy not being home for the past couple of days) to happy anticipation.
"What is it?" he asked, smiling ear to ear as he tore through the wrapping paper. He immediately recognized the toy as one he had been asking for since he saw it at a play date we had had a few weeks before. It was a set of penguin nesting dolls -- nothing fancy, nothing big, but still, special.
"Penguins!" he exclaimed.
After taking the penguin toy out of its packaging, he began to carefully line each penguin up on the windowsill, stopping every few moments to point out one of the freight boats along the East River. When he was finished, he touched each one with the tip of a finger, saying, "This one is Daddy, this one is Mommy, this one is me, and this is the baby." It was pretty perfect.
And now, over eight months since we welcomed the little guy into our family, the penguin toy is given the best real estate on his toy shelf. While all his other toys are organized in baskets, he always keeps Penguin out on display. Just yesterday, while I was busy putting the baby down for his nap, I came into my toddler's room and found him sitting on his rocking chair and singing with the penguins on his lap as he stacked them, one by one until they were nestled together into one complete family.
Here are some other helpful tips that made the transition to becoming a big brother a little easier for my toddler:
• Try to not have your toddler visit you the day that you give birth. Seeing mom in a hospital setting is scary enough, but seeing her hooked up to machines and groggy or spent is even worse. If you have a C-section, you will be especially out of it for most of the first day and will likely have a catheter tube and IV drip. If you can manage it, change out of your gown and into some very comfortable clothes.
• When your toddler enters the hospital room for the first time, have the baby in the bassinet or in someone else's arms. This lets your toddler know that mommy is here for him, and gives him a little time to get used to the idea of someone else being in mommy's arms and lap.
• Keep a special basket of snacks in the room -- fill it with treats and other things that you normally wouldn't let your child gorge on, like cookies and chips. Tell him that these are snacks just for him. Any way that you can make your toddler feel special will help give him an ego boost and have positive associations with this very big day.
• Toddlers have short attention spans. It is great to meet the baby and all, but after the initial meet and greet, the giving of the gift and some picture taking, don't expect your toddler to want to sit around in your hospital room cooing over the new bundle of joy. Send him downstairs with a grownup to go on a special adventure to the gift shop.
Photo courtesy of Alexis Barad-Cutler
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This piece was originally published by Alexis Barad-Cutler on Mommy Nearest. Alexis is a writer, editor, and published author. She writes all about that glamorous mom life on her blog. Her writing can also be regularly found on WellRoundedNY and RZBeyondMom.com. You can follow this Brooklyn mama on Instagram, Twitter and Facebook.