Our three year old is rough with our new baby. How can we stop him and protect her?


We need some ideas for handling our almost three year old  Nicky and our new baby.  He seems delighted with her, but he's so enthusiastic that he can go from hugging her to squeezing her so tight that she cries.  I feel as though I'm scolding him all the time.

It’s hard to be caught between the needs of two children!  Even though an almost three year old is capable some self control, once he gets excited he may not be able to hold himself in.  You’ve probably seen the same behavior when Nicky plays with other children his age. Even when kids (especially boys) are having fun together, as they get more and more physical they get wilder and pretty soon someone gets hurt.  Some children need more help learning control their impulses than others, and Nicky may be one of them.  

You’ve probably already figured out that Nicky and the new baby should not be left alone.  Any three year old is unpredictable, and without supervision, the most angelic older sibling could accidentally or not so accidentally hurt a baby.  At is not unusual for a preschool age child to think he can hold a baby on his own, and to try to do so while a parent is out of the room.  You not only have to protect your baby from possible harm, you have to protect Nicky  from how he would feel if he hurt her.

It can be helpful to do some gentle training so that Nicky can learn how you want him to behave.  Begin by practicing with a baby doll. If Nicky doesn’t have a baby doll yet, this is a good time to get him one!  Say to him, "Let's practice the right way to hold a baby with this doll."  Show him, and have him show you, how to be gentle, how to talk when the baby is asleep, and how to sing or talk when the baby is awake.  You can tell him that since the doll isn't real, he doesn't have to always be careful with it the way you must always be careful with a baby.  If he squeezes too hard or accidentally drops the doll, it’s O.K., because it’s just pretend.

By reminding Nicky that the doll is just a pretend baby, you open the door for him to safely act out positive or negative feelings about being a big brother. If Nicky then chooses to play roughly or angrily with his toy, you can acknowledge his feelings and activity by saying, "It's O.K. to  play with your doll that way when you want to act rough or angry.  Dolls aren't real, so you can't really hurt them."  

When Nicky is with the baby and is being gentle, always let him know that you notice.  Tell him, "I like the way you sit quietly next to your sister."  Give him ideas for things he can do with the baby while you are there:  Rock her cradle, hold her in his lap, hug her gently (wrap her in a blanket for extra protection), push her in a stroller with help, or sing and dance for her while she's in an infant seat.

Many older siblings have a hard time when the baby is nursing.  Think about it from the big brother point of view.  When you are nursing and cuddling with your baby, that sweet bubble of bliss excludes him! Not only that--he can remember, even if not consciously, that that special relationship used to be his.  So think about a way to include Nicky during this time, even if it means that you don’t get as much connection with your baby during times when Nicky is around. It helps to have a special basket of toys that come out feeding times.  Some mothers are able to breastfeed and read to the older child at the same time.  It’s a different kind of intimacy, but it can work.  If all else fails, many mothers find that allowing a child to watch a video during nursing times makes life easier during the first few months..

As busy as you may be, try to arrange private "special" time with  Nicky every day--ten to fifteen minutes is fine.  Let him choose what he'd like to do, even if he just wants you to watch him play!   Tell him how nice it is to be with him.  Even if you wind up scolding him an hour later, you'll be giving him some positive messages to balance it all out.

Last, be sure to take as good care of yourself as possible.  Try to arrange time for Nicky to be cared for by someone else to give you both a break.  Use the time to relax or if possible to nap.  It's a lot of work to take care of an almost three year old even without a new baby and when you are tired, Nicky's misbehavior will bother you more.