After learning I was pregnant with my second daughter last year, I did my best to prepare my 2½-year-old, Juniper, about our forthcoming family member.
She talked to her sister — whom she’d nicknamed “Kiki” — in my expanding belly. We sorted baby clothes and read books with plots about a new sibling’s arrival. She weighed in on the rug I chose for the nursery. I bought her a “big sister” T-shirt.
The last months of my pregnancy were filled with gleeful anticipation. So, when the baby came in November, Juniper was thrilled. A little too thrilled.
Juniper was so psyched, my husband, Sean, and I worried she’d hurt our newborn, Cora, by accident. Her hugs approached strangulation. I turned away for a moment, only to find Juniper trying to soothe her crying sister by nearly launching Cora out of a bouncing chair.
How was I going to do this?
The answer: I had to.
Using a dash of fast thinking mixed with a heaping portion of patience, I took it one day at a time. Months later, I’m happy to report Cora is alive and cooing, while Juniper, now 3, is growing into a better big sis daily.
Here are some tricks I used to ensure my preschooler didn’t accidentally hurt my newborn. To those wading these waters, I wish you luck and a day free of diaper blowouts and temper tantrums.
· Feet kisses: Nothing like having a newbie during flu and cold season. Juniper had a wicked cough the day we returned home from the hospital, and all she wanted to do was smooch her sister. Just before we left, a nurse suggested we act like it’s normal to kiss the baby’s feet — rather than cheeks — to keep Cora from getting sick. Even when the cough finally left, we kept Juniper doing this for the first few weeks until it seemed she really got the importance of being gentle — and wasn’t going to accidentally twist Cora’s head off.
· Breakfast in bed: Get that indulgent image of a breakfast tray out of your head, this is what it took some mornings to get my girls fed. In those first couple weeks, nursing could be an hour-long ordeal because of frequent burping breaks, diaper changes and the fact that Cora was learning how to nurse. Some mornings, Cora would wake to feed just before Juniper got up. Rather than having a “hangry” older sis waiting for her morning grub while I fed the baby, I invited Juniper to plop next to me in bed. While we read books, she’d munch a meal that wouldn’t make my comforter a sopping, crumb-caked mess: a NutriGrain bar, Cheerios in a cup, applesauce in a pouch and milk in a sippy.
· Some bathroom trips become a family affair: Sometimes you gotta go, and it can’t always be quick. During the first month — when Juniper was still learning the importance of gentleness and I didn’t feel confident leaving her alone with the baby — I’d pop Cora in a vibrating chair and brought her in the bathroom with me. Other times, it was Juniper I needed to watch on the toilet. Once or twice, I nursed Cora while sitting on the bathroom floor as Juniper did her business. We were finishing potty training when the baby came, and I needed to make sure everything ended up where it was supposed to. Lovely? No. Necessary? Quite.
· Mister Rogers: Before the late Fred Rogers became trendy, Juniper had already been watching throwback episodes of “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood” on Amazon Prime for months. While we adjusted to the feeding schedule of a newborn, Mister Rogers became a reliable, 30-minute lifesaver as I hustled to get dinner on the table. Although I’m not a fan of Juniper watching a lot of television, I know Rogers will teach her something interesting, honest and real while I clang around the kitchen. Seriously, how can you not admire a man who had former Pittsburgh Steeler Lynn Swann demonstrate ballet?
· Make nursing sessions special: Rather than have Juniper feel ignored during Cora’s long first-month feedings, I made it a bonding opportunity. Sometimes, Juniper sat at my feet and did her own mothering, swaddling her Cabbage Patch doll. On other occasions, she’d snuggle alongside me and we’d have a marathon reading session. Another favorite ritual (recommended by a friend with three kids) involved pulling out a cardboard box that Juniper spent a week decorating. Inside were toys and mess-free activities (such as magnetic tiles and Water Wow! coloring pads) that Juniper only played with while I nursed. Not only did Juniper not resent nursing, she’d become giddy on hearing her sister’s hunger cry.
· This isn’t the time to be a gourmet chef: I love cooking. I belong to a CSA and formerly freelanced as a recipe tester for The Washington Post’s Food section. Nevertheless, I’m not making elaborate meals right now. In these early months, I’m opting for quality time with Juniper, spending less time in the kitchen and more with her reading or making a craft. When my husband’s off work on weekends, we take advantage of the extra set of hands and cook a couple of large dinners that will hopefully yield leftovers for the following week. Budgeting to pick up ready-made meals or takeout has been worth it, too. On weekdays, having food that can be quickly heated gives us freedom to adapt when dinner happens. This way I’m able to eat with my family before or after occasionally unpredictable nursing demands. Keeping this routine helped Juniper maintain a sense of normalcy. That’s not to say I’m always buying: For the first two months after Cora’s birth, a thoughtful pal set up a meal train for me, using Take Them a Meal. There, friends signed up on an online schedule to bring my family dinner twice a week.
· Taking care of myself: What seems like common sense can easily be forgotten when your sleep-deprived self is dashing around to keep your household running. Keys for me include getting coffee as soon as possible, not lingering in pajamas, planning ahead for kid-free time with friends and grabbing whatever rare spare moments I can to do things that remind me I’m still me (such as writing this article). If I don’t, I get a little grumpy. And if I’m a grumpy mama, Juniper picks up on this and begins acting out, too. A grumpy 3-year-old is not someone you want near a baby, trust me.
· Time: As Cora approached the two-month mark, I noticed things significantly improved with her sister’s rough-handed approach toward her. Why? Aside from the fact that words and phrases such as “gentle,” “fragile” and “give her space” had become daily mantras, Juniper began to more fully comprehend what those concepts meant as she grew older. As she continues learning the skills that comes with being an older sibling, she’s becoming a reliable assistant, too: passing wipes during diaper changes or pressing a pacifier in her fussy sister’s mouth.
Recently, Juniper gently rubbed her sister’s legs with a washcloth as I bathed Cora. I smiled, appreciating how far she’s come. Yes, it made the process take longer, but it’s a moment I’ll treasure. I look forward to more of them in the days, months and years to come.
Kris Coronado is a freelance writer in Virginia. Find her online at kriscoronado.com.