Updated: Oct 27, 2020
Have you ever tried to tell a toddler, "Shh, the baby is sleeping?" If you have, you probably know that 90% of the time the toddler will just get louder. It can be a challenge to get a baby to sleep while an older #sibling is interfering. You may not trust your toddler to be left alone for more than a minute while you put the baby to sleep. Or maybe you did shut him out of the baby's room, hoping he'd play quietly, but he's just standing outside the door knocking and yelling for you. Sibling interference can be stressful, but it's not impossible to handle. So how do you keep an older child from hindering the other's sleep?
Make it special for the sibling.
With the multiple feedings, diaper changes, and naps that a baby needs each day, it can leave an older sibling (or siblings) wanting some special attention too. This is especially true if there's no one else home to occupy the sibling during these quiet moments. The baby is getting one-on-one time with you, and the sibling is just told to be quiet and/or go away...probably with a little tone of frustration. It doesn't seem very fair to him.
One way you can make this time special for him is to have a small box of toys, craft supplies, snacks, etc. set aside. This box only comes out when you're needing a few minutes to tend to the baby without interruption. At the least, just set him up with a special activity. Does your child beg for Play-Doh all day? Then make Play-Doh an activity that he can only do when you need some quiet time with the baby. My 2-year-old, Gideon, will do just about anything for a bag of fruit snacks. Now, obviously I'm not going to give him fruit snacks every time I need to put the baby down for a nap. The point is just to make it special for him too, in some small way. Doing this will make it much less stressful for you too.
Separate him from the baby.
This tip will be beneficial for so much more than just putting the baby to sleep. If you have multiple children, you need a space in your house that is closed off and completely child-proofed. It needs to be safe for you to leave your older child there unsupervised for a few minutes at a time.
For us, this is our downstairs living room. There's only one entry point, and it's gated off. The room is completely child-proofed. The plugs all have protectors in them, the TV and furniture are all mounted to the wall, and there isn't anything in there that would hurt Gideon if he got into it. I leave the basement door open so I can hear him downstairs, if he were to cry for any reason.
A lot of times, when I need to get Phoebe ready for a nap, I will take Gideon downstairs. I'll make sure he has a snack and/or an activity he likes, shut the gate, and go do what I need to do with her. I have peace leaving him there alone for a few minutes because I know he's safe. I also use this area a lot to feed Phoebe. We will all go downstairs and get closed into the living room. Gideon can play and roam freely (within the room) while I feed her.
If you don't have an area like this to gate off, then you can simply use your older child's bedroom. Tell him he needs to play quietly in his room for a few minutes. Close the door with a child-proof doorknob cover on the inside, if needed.
Use an "and then" statement.
Gideon will also do just about anything in order to play outside. He's not old enough to be left outside alone though. So I'll say something like, "Give me a few minutes to put Phoebe down for a nap, and then we'll go outside." This type of directive gives him something to look forward to while I'm giving all of my attention to his sister. He's usually much more likely to comply and be quiet if he knows we get to go outside when I'm done. A lot of times, I'll come out of her room to find that he quietly put his shoes on (usually the wrong feet) and is ready to go outside!
All of the above tips are possible because it never takes me more than a couple of minutes to put Phoebe down for a nap. I simply change her diaper and put her sleep sack on, turn on her sound machine, lay her down, and leave the room. That's it. I wouldn't be able to leave Gideon alone if I had to sit in there and rock her until she fell asleep or anything like that.
When she was still a newborn, I did rock her to sleep. There were a lot of times when Gideon was in the room with me because I couldn't leave him alone for how long it took me to get her to sleep. Thankfully, newborns are usually able to fall asleep with noise. Now that she's older, there's no way Phoebe would go to sleep with Gideon in the room. Her being able to fall asleep independently is the key to all of the above tricks working.
Honestly, there are still times when none of the above works and he does still come into her room with me. When this happens, it's not a big deal because she is an independent sleeper. After I lay her down, I'll usher Gideon out as quietly as possible, and on we all go with our day!
If your child is older, you may be able to leave him alone for longer than a few minutes at a time. Or maybe you have more than two children and the older ones can help with the younger ones at these times. This is all well and good! However, if you are like me, and have two kids 17 months apart, chances are you will need to get a little more creative.
During the Nap
Keeping a sibling quiet during a nap can also be a challenge. We live in a ranch-style house with a finished basement. You can hear someone from any room on the main floor. We don't even use a baby monitor when the kids are sleeping unless we're outside or downstairs. Therefore, when Phoebe is sleeping, I try to take Gideon either outside or downstairs. Remember that basement living room that I have gated off? We usually go down there while Phoebe is taking her morning nap. I then usually take him outside during her afternoon one, if the weather cooperates.
Sometimes removing the sibling from the area isn't an option. You could try to keep him quiet by letting him continue the special activity you brought out to get the baby to sleep. Organized activities, like a craft, would be an awesome way to keep him busy during this time too. Or if you allow any screen time, during a sibling nap would be an efficient time for it if you need to get some things done too. Also, use a sound machine for the baby. It will help drown out any noise that does get through.
Siblings can add a challenge to getting your little ones to sleep. Making it special for them or giving them something to look forward to will make it easier on them - and you. Is there any special way you've found to do this in your family?
This is Part 1 of the More to Love blog series. This series talks about common sleep issues for families with more than one child. Parts 2 and 3 will be coming out in the next couple of weeks!
~Ashley Bell, pediatric sleep consultant