You are here

The Baby & Toddler Challenge

When our second baby was on the way, I was pretty confident. I knew how to care for an infant  -- change her diapers, bathe her, nurse her, comfort her. I was prepared to run short on sleep and long on laundry.

What I hadn't prepared for was a huge change in logistics. What could I do with baby Zak while I gave Lilianna, 2, a bath? And how could I get Lilianna  -- who was used to having a lengthy, cuddly bedtime story  -- to bed when Zak was crying? How could I keep Lilianna from getting into mischief while I nursed him? Every routine quickly turned into a dilemma.

But it did get easier. Or perhaps I just got better at it. I came to find that while things were permanently noisier and busier, the work it took to care for two didn't actually double. It was more like one and a half times harder. Here's how to handle everyday tasks-whether shopping, bathing the kids, or putting them to bed-with grace (or at least a modicum of control). First, a few general suggestions for setting yourself up for success:

Get organized -- even if it's against your nature. Regular naptimes, mealtimes, bathtimes, and bedtimes instill a sense of sanity and stability that will help your firstborn with the transition to siblinghood. For your own well-being, keep a to-do list (just make it realistic) and an up-to-date calendar. If you can plan a week in advance, it'll be easier to enlist help from friends and relatives.

Encourage others to be part of your daily routine in a helpful way. If you're a stay-at-home mom, have your partner call before leaving work (or ask a neighbor to do so) to see whether you need any groceries picked up on the way home. Ask a grandparent to spend a couple of scheduled hours once a week with your toddler; ask a friend's older child if she'd like to be a "mother's helper" once in a while  -- to fold laundry, vacuum, or clean up after dinner so you can bathe the kids.

Don't force it. Try as you might to be efficient, there will be some tasks that defy simplifying. "I accepted the fact that my older son needs a longer bedtime ritual than my younger one and that it takes a long time to get both bathed and in their pajamas," says Wendy Schwantes of Fishers, Indiana.

Banish guilt. "All parents of more than one must accept that giving a child what he needs at a specific moment often means some neglect of the other. But most children end up getting as much love over time," says Judy Dunn, Ph.D., author of From One Child to Two. Find time to give your firstborn some one-on-one attention to let him know  -- with words and actions  -- that he's still wonderful in your eyes. He's likely to be more cooperative as a result.

Invest in some hand-freeing equipment. Consider such devices as a backpack, a frontpack, a bouncy seat, and an infant seat  -- they'll give you a free hand when you need one. Don't overuse any of them by keeping your baby in them too long, of course, but when you have to get some quick vacuuming done or your toddler to the potty, they're indispensable.

Shopping & Bathing Strategies

Shopping Strategies

As tiring as it can be for you to run errands with two in tow, your toddler will probably be wiped out much more quickly. So make an effort to keep her occupied. When you need to stock up on groceries, for instance, try putting her in the cart and the baby in a backpack instead of expecting her to keep pace on foot. Then give her a job, such as checking items off your shopping list. If your older child would rather toddle than ride, you'll need a way to make it through the store without a major mishap  -- all the more complicated with a baby in arms. Danielle Schaaf of Houston put cotton balls in her twin toddlers' hands and told them to protect their "little duck eggs" while they were in the store. "They were so busy being gentle with the cotton balls, they didn't touch a thing!" she says. Asking your toddler to get items off the shelf also keeps her from running off and knocking over a tower of spaghetti sauce.

Bathing the Beauties

Giving a bath to two kids at a time, especially when one is an infant, can be a logistical problem. If you want to bathe your toddler alone  -- because he prefers it or because your little one isn't ready for the big tub  -- try putting the baby nearby in the stroller or infant seat. All the activity in the tub might just keep her attention long enough for you to scrub her brother. Engaging your toddler while you bathe the baby is usually easier. If you're using an infant tub, place it on towels on the floor so your older child can see what you're doing. Sometimes New York City mom Amy Spencen lets her 2-year-old, Lindsay, help bathe younger sister Kensi, 6 weeks, but other times Lindsay brings her dolly to bathe instead.

Once your kids are able to get in the big tub together, bathtime can be streamlined (the younger child can sit in a bath ring). "I can't tell you how exciting it was for all of us when Nina was big enough to take a bath with her sister," says Lisa Scagliotti of Waterbury, Vermont. Born 20 months apart, Nina and Claire could share a tub when Nina was about 1, making the nighttime routine much easier.

Shannon Tew of Elgin, Illinois, manages three boys in a tub: 3-year-old Joshua, 2-year-old Brian, and 3-month-old Timothy. She starts by gathering up the clothes, the bathing supplies, the baby seat, and a book or toy. The older boys help bathe Timothy. Then, as Tew dries off and dresses the baby, she calls out body parts that the two older boys need to wash. Timothy is put into his baby seat, and Mom finishes up Brian, who then "reads" or plays with a toy while she tends to Joshua.

If a tandem bath seems too hard to handle, just give up on daily baths altogether. An infant needs only a sponge bath every few days, and older kids can often get by with a genuine soap-and-water washing every couple of nights. A wet washcloth will suffice on the other nights.

Feeding and Housework

Feeding Time

When kids are on entirely different schedules and diets, things can get especially complicated. Jealousy may also be a factor  -- such as when a hungry baby starts to cry in the middle of a game of Candy Land with your firstborn.

To smooth the way, Amy Spencen, who breastfeeds Kensi, expresses milk now and then so that Lindsay can feed the baby too. When Spencen is nursing Kensi, Lindsay gets to do something special, like eat a treat or watch a video.

"It doesn't take long for a new nursing mom to figure out how to nurse her infant on one side and hold a book in the opposite hand," says Lisa Scagliotti. When Nina was a newborn, Claire would cuddle up to read and help by turning the pages. When the baby's mealtime coincides with the family dinner (or big brother's lunch), go ahead and nurse her or give her her bottle at the table. Consider moving a comfortable chair or rocker into the dining area or kitchen.

Once a baby can sit in a high chair and graduates to solid or finger foods, systems can be simplified. As often as possible, serve the same foods at the same time  -- just make the pieces smaller for your baby. Create a game of having your toddler or preschooler teach the baby  -- by his good example  -- table manners. Perhaps your older one can help with the feeding. If he's finished first and you'd like to keep him at the table, pull out a toy, book, or crayons, reserved especially for these moments.

Housework Help

For the sake of sanity, most parents relax their tidiness standards when the baby is little. But for the chores that still need to be done  -- cooking, laundry, and some cleaning  -- don't wait until naptime. Instead, work with your baby in tow when you're able and use her naptimes to relax with your older child. (Maybe you'll both fall asleep too!) Enlist your toddler's or preschooler's help with some of the easier tasks  -- dusting, picking up, sorting laundry  -- by explaining that she'll have your attention later if you tackle the chore now.

Most of the time, though, you'll want to find activities to keep your older child occupied while you're working around the house. In the kitchen, provide a low cupboard of safe pots and pans; in the living room, make a special place for her, with a big pillow and a pile of library books. Often you'll be able to wear your baby while you work (except when near a hot stove). Put on some fun music to make the atmosphere more festive.

Ready for Bed

A toddler or preschooler can be taught to be quiet at the younger sibling's bedtime. The best way to do this is to point out that he'll get to have some time alone with you after the baby's asleep! Try making a game of it: We often played the "whisper game" at our house (first one to make a sound louder than a whisper is out). But babies can sleep through astonishingly loud noises, so you needn't go overboard with the tiptoeing.

To help big brother settle down, a recorded story or favorite soft music can work wonders, especially if you're trying to get the baby to bed simultaneously. If you can, rock the baby to sleep in the firstborn's room while you listen to a bedtime tape with your older child. He'll be less likely to feel the baby is taking you away from him.

My daughter, Lilianna, was used to the whole nine yards at night  -- a story in bed, a song, and a mom who was willing to lie beside her until she fell asleep. It took some adjustment, but after Zak was born, I moved my nursing rocker next to her bed. I could still read the story, sing the bedtime song, and be close enough to rub her back as she fell asleep. I felt it was more important to have Lilianna to bed on time than Zak  -- who was otherwise pretty much still calling the shots around our place. While it's important to set a routine, don't get too hung up on the clock. Wendy Schwantes would get frustrated at night because she was determined to have her newborn and her toddler in bed by 8:30 p.m. "It never happened, which was frustrating," she says. "When I stopped setting that 8:30 requirement, I became calmer and bedtime got easier."

It all does get easier. In the meantime, when things get out of hand, stop and ask yourself: Is there a better strategy? Am I trying to maintain an unreasonable routine? And, most important, am I enjoying myself? Because although the fiscal rewards of parenting two kids are nil (especially considering it's a time-and-a-half position), the perks  -- if you remember to use them  -- can be terrific.

Karen Miles's last feature for PARENTING was "Listen Up!" in the September issue.