Ages & Stages Gentle Parenting Kids Newborn & Infant Pregnancy & Birth Toddler

New Rhythms for a Growing Family

mom, toddler girl and new baby
Kerry McDonald
Written by Kerry McDonald

There is a season for everything. Those warm, snuggly days with a sweet newborn are ones that will be remembered, cherished, by all members of your growing family. They can be particularly treasured by older children, helping to form lifelong sibling bonds, when parents preserve the time and space for that bonding to flourish.

There is a regrettable tendency in our culture, particularly in the midst of important life events, to seek a swift return to normalcy. We may continue to send children to daycare or school so they can “keep their routine.” We may make great efforts to hold tightly to rigid daily schedules for fear that a life-changing event, like the arrival of a new sibling, will throw the family into debilitating chaos.

Families are more resilient than that. Yes, a new baby adds an expected level of chaos to a family’s daily life, but fear of spiraling pandemonium is usually unfounded. If we as parents let go of our fears, our uncertainties, and simply settle in to the joy of living and learning alongside our growing family, we can find much greater rhythm and reward in our days at home.

Here are some strategies for living and learning together peacefully in those early days with a new nursling:

Invite them in.

In those first precious weeks with your newborn, it may seem appealing to send older siblings away, whether to school or to a babysitter or to the television, so that you can tend to your nursling. While you certainly need abundant help and support and plentiful breaks to nourish yourself as a breastfeeding mom, consider inviting your older child into the mix. Let him spend more time with you and his new sibling, rather than less. Let him take time away from school or daycare, time away from the babysitter. The more touch-points your older child has with you and your nursling in those early weeks, the easier it can be to parent all of your children. Your older child will feel included and involved, your nursling will create bonds with her older sibling, and you will be better able to cultivate new daily rhythms together as a family.

As La Leche League’s classic book, “The Womanly Art of Breastfeeding,” so wisely states: “You will find that generous portions of love and reassurance will go a long way toward helping your older child, the ex-baby, accept the demands that the new baby is making on your time.” (7th ed. p. 199). You can offer these “generous portions of love and reassurance” when you invite your older child in, welcoming him to join you in the joy and chaos of such a spectacular season of life.

Find a new rhythm.

As a breastfeeding mom, you know that rhythm typically works better than routine. You know that your baby nurses according to her own natural needs and internal cadence, and you instinctively follow by nursing on-demand instead of by the clock. The same rhythms that guide how you nourish and nurture your nursling can help you to settle in to new family rhythms, naturally and peacefully. Instead of a daily routine, think of a daily rhythm: a general flow to the day that is not rigid, not structured, but that may offer some predictability for everyone.

What might family rhythms look like with a new nursling and her older sibling? These rhythms will need to be tailored to the distinct and changing needs of your family, and they will very likely evolve over time. As an example, you may find that mornings, when your nursling may sleep more deeply, are a good time to gather your older child close to you, to read or tell stories in bed, to work on a craft or plan the day ahead together. You may then invite your older child to gather alongside you as you nurse the baby, perhaps having toys or books for him to play with independently. You can include your older child in your morning chores: cooking breakfast, making beds, starting laundry—with the baby in tow. Midday nap or quiet time for an older child can allow you all to take a breath and re-charge for the afternoon, creating a natural benchmark in the day. An afternoon excursion–to a park, to the library, to the market– can be a daily expectation that allows for community connection and time in nature. Returning home for dinner, bath, books and bed can be a reliable capstone that offers some predictability amidst all of the bustle and busyness of the day.

Let go.

During these days of inviting your older child to fully participate in the care and tending or your new nursling, and cultivating new family rhythms for your expanding family, it is important to remember to let go. Let go. These days with a breastfeeding baby and a growing child are fleeting. When you look back on them, you won’t remember that the beds were not tidy, the floors not swept, the bathrooms not cleaned. But you will remember the way it felt to be nursing your baby on your lap while your child rested his head on your shoulder. You won’t remember the toys strewn across the carpet, the mountain of laundry, the list of to-dos, but you will remember the first warm spring walk with your energetic toddler while you wore your sleeping baby in her sling. You won’t remember the crumbs and the stains and the messes. But you will remember the closeness, the love, the joy.

This is a special season of life: breastfeeding a new baby while caring for an older child. Celebrate this extraordinary time together. Integrate your older child fully into the daily-ness of life with your new nursling. Cultivate new family rhythms, daily benchmarks, together that help to add predictability to the constant uncertainty of life with little ones. And then let things go. The joy of parenthood is in the days, not the details.

About the author

Kerry McDonald

Kerry McDonald

Kerry McDonald has been deeply involved in education policy and practice for two decades. She has a B.A. in Economics from Bowdoin College and an M.Ed. from Harvard University, where she studied education administration, planning, and social policy. Kerry lives and learns together with her husband and four, never-been-schooled children in Cambridge, Massachusetts. You can email Kerry at kmcdonald@post.harvard.edu, and visit her blog at Whole Family Learning.