Preparing Our Toddler for the New Baby

Bensen is at an age where he understands changes in our family but may not fully comprehend how those changes affect him. I was nervous leading up to Emmy's birth because I wasn't sure how he would react to having a sister and not being the center of attention in our home anymore. When Emmy arrived early, it made a few of the adjustments easier but it also made a few of them harder. Change is always going to come with challenges, especially when it disrupts a child's routine and sense of normal. What we did worked for our situation in particular and I hope that at least one or two of these ideas will help your family as well. Luckily, he seems to really love her a lot, she's the first thing he wants to check on when he wakes up and he's always asking to see her. 

Talk about the baby often

We tried to talk about baby sister often enough that even if Bensen didn't know what a baby sister was or how she was going to change his life, he would recognize what we were saying after she had arrived. He would point to my stomach and say "baby" and sometimes when we were reading stories together, he'd lean over and give my belly kisses. When we would work on a project in the baby's room, we'd make sure to emphasize that it was baby sister's room and baby sister was going to sleep here. The things that were familiar to Bensen as his own, like the pack and play that Emmy sleeps in right now or the binky she uses that is similar to the one he uses at grandma's house, we are sure to acknowledge that Bensen used to use them but now they are for baby sister.

After Emmy was born, because we didn't get to bring her home right away, this was even more important. We would talk about going to visit Baby Emmy and we would show Bensen new pictures and videos of Emmy every time we came home from being with her at the hospital. As we got closer to bringing her home, we started to talk more and more about where she would sleep and how excited we were to bring her home. Now Bensen talks about "Mimi" constantly and he gets really excited to see her and find out what she's doing (which is almost always sleeping).

Let them be involved

Bensen isn't able to help with much of Emmy's care, but I let him be as involved as I possibly can. While Emmy was still in the hospital and I was spending my mornings with him, I usually had to pump at least once after he was awake. He'd climb up onto the bed next to me with his pen and paper and some books and we'd read, sing songs and hang out for 30 minutes. Now that Emmy is home, he sits by me on the couch to help me read her stories, and helps me check on her when she cries. I work to find some way to make him feel like part of whatever I'm doing when my focus is on Emmy and I'm unable to give him my full attention.

Give them attention and love

I mentioned last week that the biggest struggle I had with a baby in the NICU was balancing my time between my two children. Emmy needed me to be there, helping with her feedings, diaper changes, baths and doing kangaroo care. Bensen also needed me to be there, and he was more aware of my absence that Emmy ever was. I had to be extremely intentional with the time that I spent with Bensen and make sure that he knew that I cared about him. We had lunches together, went on a few outings and he made a few special visits to the hospital. 

Now that Emmy is home, it would be easy to carry her around all day, especially because I have a wrap but I know that Bensen appreciates my undivided attention and the time that we spend together. We spend a lot of time playing in his room while Emmy is sleeping in her bassinet across the hall where I can hear her and check on her quickly. We read books, have dance parties, snuggle before nap time, and laugh over the most ridiculous things. Once again, I am intentional with my time when Bensen is awake during the day and find ways to make him feel important, even when I am feeding Emmy.

Keep a routine

Our routine hasn't the same as it was before Emmy was born, but we have tried our hardest to make it as close to that routine as possible. It took a bit of arranging, but for the three weeks that Emmy was in the NICU, we had a good routine going. We'd have breakfast in the morning, take the dog on a quick walk, play for a bit and then I'd drop Bensen off to whoever was taking care of him for the day. There he'd get lunch, take a nap, play and eat a snack, sometimes come to visit us in the hospital, and eat dinner. After Joe had dinner with me and spent some time with Emmy, he'd pick Bensen up and take him home to have a bath, play some more and stick to his bedtime routine. Sticking as close to our normal routine as possible helped keep Bensen stable, even though he could sense changes and that something different was going on. Now that we're home, even though that routine is a little different than it was before, we've tried to keep Bensen's basic daily schedule as close to normal as possible. 

Give them a gift from the baby

This is a tradition that my family had and that I've seen quite a few families have as well. I purchased a couple of new books and a bag of mega blocks for Bensen to have when the baby arrived. I'd planned to wait until Emmy came home to give them to him, but because he was coming to the hospital quite a bit at the beginning, I brought the gift there so he'd have something to keep him entertained. Some other fun things that I've seen older siblings get are a doll so that they have a baby of their own and a big brother/big sister shirt. A gift isn't necessary, but like I said, a fun tradition!

Be creative

Whenever my mom was expecting, she'd make a little story book for the baby of the family that talked about the preparations that would be made and the things that we could expect leading up to the baby's birth and arrival home. I had great intentions of making one of these for Bensen to tell the story of what he could expect, but unfortunately I never got around to it. There are also a lot of great already written stories that are based on the same idea.

For Bensen and our situation with Emmy in the hospital for three weeks, we found something more creative. Every time we would show him a picture or video of his sister, he'd get a big smile on his face and sit fixed on the image or the video. Joe decided to print and laminate one of the many pictures that we'd taken of Emmy in the hospital and let Bensen carry it around with him. It was the sweetest thing to watch him with that picture, since he wasn't able to meet Emmy until she was almost a week old and even then, they weren't allowed to touch or interact. He would give his picture of Emmy kisses and you could tell that he loved his sister already. He also knew exactly who she was when he finally did meet her and when we brought her home.

Make their meeting special

Bensen got to meet Emmy twice in a way. They met at the hospital, after she'd gotten rid of her IV. That meeting was supposed to happen through the window of the NICU doors, but the nurses told us that we could have the doors open as long as he didn't get too close or touch her. Joe rolled Emmy's bassinet out while I held Bensen and introduced the two of them and it was the sweetest moment of my life. The second time that they met was the day that we brought her home. Joe sat on the couch with Emmy and I sat next to him with Bensen in my lap. Bensen was intrigued by her little noises, loved when her little hands would touch his and couldn't stop smiling at his sister. I will treasure both memories forever!

I think one of the biggest tips I've heard, and one that I shared in my post about helping our dog adjust to the new baby, is to make sure that mom isn't holding the baby the first time the two of them meet. Our situation was a bit different than what I'd planned for because neither of the times that Bensen first saw his sister were also the first time that he'd seen me since I left for the hospital. He had visited me a few times in the hospital before she was born and after and I had been spending my mornings with him for the three weeks that Emmy was in the hospital. For a lot of kids, they are meeting their sibling for the first time and seeing their mom for the first time in a while at the same time, whether it's in the hospital or when mom and baby come home. If mom has the baby in her arms, the older child may feel replaced and jealous.

Like I mentioned, there will always be challenges when you experience changes in life, big or small. Tantrums seem to happen more frequently and Bensen thinks it's fun to push my limits when I'm distracted and taking care of Emmy. For the most part, he has been a lot of fun and really loves his sister. I hope that he continues to feel as fond of her as he does now and I hope that the things we've done to help him adjust makes that more likely. I can't wait to see how their relationship develops and what kind of friends they become over the next few years.

How have you helped your kids transition into not being the baby of the family anymore? 

How to Start Talking to Your Kids About Sex and Healthy Relationships

Why is it so important to be talking about sex and healthy relationships with your kids? The sad truth is that your child is probably already hearing about sex well before you want to believe they are. our society is so sexualized that the commercials and television shows they are seeing are already sending them tons of messages about sex and sexuality. Just thinking about having these conversations makes a lot of parents uncomfortable and is the last thing we want to be talking about. This however, creates a taboo and a mystery around sex that perpetuates the problem. Most parents wait way too long and then talk way too little about the topic. As a therapist, I've worked with so many families who struggle with these discussions and I've worked with many teens whose first and only exposure and knowledge about sex came from friends, the media and pornography. This creates a completely and ridiculously distorted view of sex and relationships.

The important thing to remember is that if you aren't talking about sex with your kids they are still learning it from somewhere and that source is likely not as thoughtful and helpful as the information that you can provide.

As uncomfortable as it may be for you, work to have open discussions with your kids about sex, start at an early age and continue to revisit and expand on this as they grow older. It is important to continually use real names for body parts and normalize sex and our bodies. Having conversations about what a healthy relationship looks like is equally important and can be a great segue into discussions about sex. Talk about what traits your kids feel are important to find in a partner someday and what they think a good relationship looks like. Help them to identify real qualities and not the completely unrealistic movie relationships that teach "sparks flew and they lived happily ever after with absolutely no problems". Have them pick out things that they like about the relationships around them, even if this is a fictional couple, work to help them pick out real qualities be saying things like "so you like that they are always there for each other" or "you like that he is really listening to her". Continue to emphasize values like honesty and help them develop a real picture of what a healthy relationship actually looks like.

Developing a healthy sexual identity is so important and is often missed because kids are not engaged in discussions about sex and relationships. The receive so much information from their friends and the media and most of this is really bad information. So many youth are now over sexualized without having any real depth or understanding of anything. Fostering healthy self-esteem and supporting the building of a healthy sexual identity can be priceless and save parents and kids a tremendous amount of pain. Your family values or religious views will definitely impact how you teach and talk to your kids about sex and sexuality but it is crucial to note that helping them have a positive and healthy attitude, instead of a bad and shame filled view of sex and sexuality, will actually help safeguard them and make it more likely that they will make good choices in the future.

With all of these discussions, work to leave the door open and let your children know that you are there for them with any questions they have. Acknowledge that you know it's probably really uncomfortable and awkward for them to come to you with those things but let them know you are there. This is a piece that I spend a lot of time supporting families through. Kids often need support opening up and talking to parents about these things and the parents need a lot of support in being able to hear it and discuss it without becoming reactive. Working to create space for these conversations is so important and then working to hold that space and have those conversations can be even harder. It is vital to not be too reactive in these moments, if you are, they will learn that it is not safe to discuss these things with you. This doesn't mean you have to condone or approve of everything but it does mean you're able to discuss it without shaming. Shame is the piece that leads kids to be secretive, scared and continue to develop and engage in unhealthy habits and beliefs. Start having these conversations early and continue to build on them as your child grows and you will be paving the way for a much brighter and healthier future.

Date Night Ideas from the NICU

I've heard lots of different excuses for why a couple isn't making weekly date night a priority in their marriage. I use the word excuse because that's exactly what the reasons are, excuses. Chances are, you started making these excuses to yourself and/or your spouse when life got busy and taking time out of your week to have a date seemed almost impossible. The more you make these excuses and let things get in the way of date night, the easier it will become to set date night aside for something else that you need or want to do instead. With a preemie in the hospital and a toddler at home, we have every reason not to go on dates right now, but because our marriage is a priority and we want to make sure we are spending time with each other, we have been determined to make date night happen.

Date night is difficult when you're spending all of your time together at the hospital or at home after your toddler is in bed. While I was in labor, I had to cancel plans and reservations that I'd made for an overnight date I was planning to surprise Joe with the next weekend. It would have been easy to forget all about date night while we were in the hospital and I don't think anybody would have questioned us on that decision. To be honest, the weekend that Emmy was born was so hectic that we didn't do anything for a date. Unless you count watching an episode of Psych while I was stuck on hospital bed rest and sharing a turkey sandwich in the room after she was born as a date. I knew that because of how crazy life was and how limited our time together was, we needed to set aside time to date each other during our stay in the NICU. Spending a few hours together, uninterrupted and away from both of our kids was just what we needed to reconnect at the end of our long and exhausting weeks. 

The thing about date night while you're in the hospital is that you have to be creative. We don't have a lot of time between cares (when we change diapers, take her temperature and feed her) and there are only a few hours between the time Joe gets to the hospital after work and when he leaves to pick Bensen up and put him to bed. I've had so many ideas of things that we could do together, but couldn't achieve all of them in the three weeks that we've been in the hospital because ultimately, the majority of our time had to be spent with our two little ones. I was surprised to find that I was somewhat disappointed that we weren't spending more time here so that we could get to more of these activities. I had really fun plans for date night this coming weekend, but Emmy decided that she was ready to meet all of her goals and escape the hospital, so once again I'm changing my plans and we're having date night at home instead. Whether you have a baby in the NICU or not, I hope that you can enjoy a few of these dates yourself!

Order pizza, play a game and/or watch a movie

A few days into our stay, we noticed a local pizza company delivering pizza to the hospital and our floor on a couple of different occasions. I immediately knew that our date that coming weekend would be low key, pizza delivery to the hospital. As soon as Joe got here after work that Friday night, we placed our order to be delivered when we knew that we'd be ready to eat and then went to spend time together with Emmy until it arrived. Because we only had an hour or so for our date, we turned on an episode of Psych to watch while we eat.

We also love to play games, and these card games from Grandpa Beck's Games are great! Golf has always been a favorite of ours and it's been fun to learn some new games together. We'll have lots more opportunities to master these games when we're spending lots of time at home this winter. I have a feeling that Cover Your Assets is going to become a favorite of ours.

Go Out to Dinner

We've been blessed with lots of homemade meals delivered to us at the hospital by friends and family. When we don't have a meal coming, we'll order room service. We spend so much time in the hospital, at home and at work (Joe), that even a quick stop at the store on my way home at night feels like a vacation. The night that we left Emmy in the care of her awesome nurses and went to one of our favorite restaurants nearby was a great break! We were only gone for two hours, but we spent our time laughing and talking about less serious parts of life. After a week of working to balance life, that date was exactly what our marriage needed and we were able to connect in a different way than we'd been connecting during our challenge.

A change of scenery can do wonders for your relationship, so getting out of the hospital one night for dinner, even if it's just a quick meal inside a fast food location. Find a few restaurants near the hospital that you want to try or that you already love but aren't able to frequent very often. While you're enjoying dinner, try not to talk about the challenges that you're going through in life. Lighten things up and talk about something fun that you're looking forward to doing, plan your date night activity for the next week, or share funny stories from your week. (I've found that after we tackle the must discuss topics every day, I always forget to tell Joe about the funny things that happened to me throughout the day.)

Go for a Drive

Part of our date night plan for this coming weekend was going to be to take a drive up the canyon a ways and enjoy the fall leaves. I was looking forward to holding hands while we listened to music, talked about life and enjoying signs of my favorite season. You can have a car karaoke party, laugh and talk, or enjoy sitting in silence together (it can actually be really nice when life gets chaotic). Find somewhere scenic close to you, roll down the windows and enjoy your time outside of the hospital. 

Share a Treat

Maybe you don't want to leave the hospital for the length of dinner. You could grab a treat and enjoy it together either in or out of the hospital. Check out the cafeteria, or if your hospital offers it, order something from room service. You could also research places near you where they might have really delicious and unique desserts. There is a chocolate shop just a block from the hospital where we'd planned to stop for hot chocolate and a treat this weekend.

Sightsee and Play Tourists

Our hospital is located in the heart of a city that's the tourist destination of our state. Some of the areas around the hospital are great for walking around and exploring and are not places that we frequent very often. The state capitol building, a few gorgeous parks, and a few other popular locations. If we'd had a bit more time on a weekend, we would have taken an hour break to get some fresh air and enjoy some of the sights that we take for granted because we live so close to them.

Date night is so important for your marriage! Setting aside time for each other during every stage of life is important. Your relationship will grow and you will grow together as a couple if you make each other a priority during the hard times in life rather than letting life get in the way. 

How We're Working Together to Balance Life at Home with Life in the NICU

This week Emmy hits 35 weeks adjusted and this past Friday she turned two weeks old. We don't have a specific date for when she will be released yet, but Joe and I are hoping to be home by this time next week. We've been very blessed with a feisty girl who seems just as eager to get home as we are. Being born at just over 32 weeks gestation meant that Emmy could have been in for a two month stay, up until her due date. After her first day in the Special Care Nursery (a step down from the NICU, for babies who don't need as intensive of care), the nurses estimated that we would be here for about a month. Emmy has made so many great steps toward going home, and is currently working on achieving the last goal on her list before they'll let us do that. If we can make it home before her three week birthday, she'll have proven everyone wrong.

For me, the hardest part of having a preemie hasn't been the fact that she is in the NICU. The hardest thing for me those first few days was trying to find a good balance between life at home with Bensen, life in the hospital with Emmy, time with Joe and time spent taking care of myself. There were many tears shed and a lot of guilt while I tried to find that perfect schedule that would allow me to take care of each of the most important people in my life. It still takes a lot of planning and intentionality on a day to day basis to make things work, but for now, we've settled into a really good routine that works for everyone based on our current situation.

How we're balancing life in the hospital with life at home while still making time for our marriage.

Get out of the hospital!

This would be my biggest suggestion for any parent with a child in the hospital, no matter their age. As soon as I was discharged from post-partum recovery, I made a goal to get out of the hospital once a day for at least 30 minutes. I knew that for my own mental health, I needed that little escape, no matter how long Emmy's hospital stay was going to be. For us, getting out of the hospital has been relatively easy because Emmy has not been relying on me constantly as a source of food, she needed to stay on the lights and in her isolette for the first week and couldn't be held too often plus we have a toddler at home who needed our love and attention. Every time we leave Emmy's room we know that she is in great hands and will sleep while we're gone so she won't miss us too much. 

If your child in the hospital is older, it may not be as easy to leave because they are aware when you do and are relying on you as a source of comfort and entertainment. You may be able to find other family members or close friends who can come and stay with your little one a couple of times a week while you get out and do anything that does not involve your hospital stay. You and your spouse may also take turns spending time with your child while the other goes home to be with the other kids or to do something for them. If one of you is working through the hospital stay, that spouse most likely joins the other at the hospital after work each day. This would be a perfect time for the parent who has been with the child throughout the day to get out for a bit while the working parent has some alone time to bond with the child.

Take time for yourself

Right now I am being pulled in a million directions and am constantly on the go. Because I know that it's important for me to stay rested, I spend an hour or so every afternoon, in my room at the hospital by myself. Some days I take a nap, I'll watch a movie, sit and blog, work on a personal project, or make a bunch of phone calls and cross things off of my to do list that is constantly growing. The time that you take for yourself can go hand in hand with your escape from the hospital as well. Now that the weather is getting cooler, I want to start leaving to go for a short walk every afternoon to enjoy my favorite fall weather.

Making time for yourself is important and will help you be the best wife and mom possible. If you neglect yourself, you will get more exhausted than you already might be and as awful as it sounds, you may start to dread the time that you spend with your family. It doesn't have to be a long amount of time and you don't have to do anything elaborate. Sometimes it's just nice to take an extra long shower and shave your legs, go get a fresh haircut, or even run to the grocery store by yourself. Whatever it is, try to set aside time for your own thing every few days. You'll be a lot happier if you do! 

Make date night a priority

I'll be honest, I think weekly date night is easier right now than it will be once we get home. Bensen is with family every day until Joe picks him up for bed and we have the most qualified (and most expensive) caregivers for Emmy. Our date nights are shorter and we have to put them on pause in the middle so Joe can pick Bensen up and put him to bed and I can feed Emmy and help with her night time cares, but we still make them happen. Now more than ever, when our quality time together is rare, date night is extra important!

Our first Friday in the hospital was the weekend that I'd planned a surprise overnight date for Joe (I cancelled it while I was in labor and was a little disappointed), so we simplified it and went to one of our favorite restaurants near the hospital for dinner. I got all dressed up, did my hair and makeup and we escaped together. Those two hours that we were away together were just what we needed and I didn't even know it. We were able to connect in a fun way, not over the serious conversations that we'd been having for a week, and feel like life was semi-normal. My mom had Bensen for the night so Joe was able to stay and help with Emmy's cares and then we went home and watched a movie together.

This past weekend's date night was simple but one that we'd been planning and looking forward to for an entire week. When Joe got to the hospital on Friday, we ordered pizza to be delivered a couple of hours later and then went to hang out with Emmy until it arrived. When our pizza arrived, we headed back to our room and had a picnic in bed while we watched an episode of Psych. We were going to finish our date after I got home, but Joe fell asleep while I was pumping, so that didn't happen. I've already got some tentative plans in the work for this coming weekend, if we are still here in the hospital. Watch Instagram to see what we do this weekend and in the coming months when we're stuck at home more than we usual.

Come back to the blog on Friday and I'll share some more of my ideas for creative date nights in the hospital!

Spend time alone together daily

Like I mentioned above, with a toddler at home and a baby in the hospital, our quality time is extremely limited. Joe is at work all day while I split my time between both of our kids. When Joe gets off work, he comes down to the hospital for a few hours but he spends the majority of that time with Emmy because that's the only time he really has to see her. Around 7pm, he leaves to get Bensen in bed while I stay for a bit longer to feed Emmy. By the time I get home, it's late and we're both exhausted. With our schedule, we have to be intentional with the time that we do have together and we have to make a conscious effort to make time for each other.

While Joe is holding Emmy every afternoon, I make it a point to be in there with them so that we can talk about the day, life and other things. Every night, we eat dinner together, and because we have to leave the nursery to eat, it's a great opportunity for quality time. There's a room across the hall for families to gather and we'll usually pull two chairs up next to each other and eat in there. When I leave the hospital each night, it's dark and I have to walk to my car in the empty parking garage, so I call Joe while I do that and talk more before he gets too tired and calls it quits for the day. Scheduling and planning our weekly date nights are another way that we find that time to spend together working on our relationship with each other.

Spend time together as a family

Bensen gets time alone with both Joe and I each day, but until Emmy comes home, there isn't a time every day that we're all together as a family. He's too young to visit Emmy in her room, so having time together as a whole family isn't possible, but we try to plan something weekly that lets Bensen spend time with both of his parents at once. Planning some family activities has been a lot of fun and I look forward to hanging out with my favorite guys, watching them have fun together and bond.

Last Monday, we took Bensen to the zoo for the first time. It was a plan that I'd had for the day before Emmy came early and I decided that we should stick to it. Because it was a holiday, the zoo was busy and by the end, both Bensen and I were exhausted, but I'm glad that we went. Our families have been more than willing to bring Bensen down to the hospital to see us during the week, and I brought blocks and books to put in my room so that he has something to do while he is here. One night we met my family at a local park so that we could eat dinner with Bensen and hang out for a little bit. It takes a lot of planning and being intentional, just like with our marriage, but the extra effort is worth it.

Do what's best for your family

The first day that I left the hospital, a lot of people were asking me how I could leave my baby in the NICU. It was hard leaving her at first, even though I knew she was in very capable hands, but like I've told people every day since then, I leave the hospital for my own healthy and to help Bensen have some normalcy during this crazy time. If it were our first child, it might be a different story, but I wouldn't have the balance that I do because having Bensen at home has in a way forced me to leave Emmy's room and get out of the hospital.

My mornings are filled with a lot of fun Bensen time and I'll also clean the house a bit so that the chaos doesn't get too out of control. If someone could explain to me how a family that is rarely home, especially for meals, dirties enough dishes to run a load every single day, I'd like to know how that works. My afternoons are filled with snuggles, feedings, pumping and resting in my room. After Joe gets off work, I hang out with him and Emmy and we eat dinner together. Then Joe gets in his Bensen time while I stay to feed Emmy again. After cares, I go home for the night, watch an episode of something with Joe and go to sleep in my own bed so that I'm rested and ready to start the whole process over again the next day.

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Some days I wish that I could spend my entire day at the hospital snuggling and feeding Emmy and other days I hate to leave Bensen and wish that I could stay home and play with him all day. A lot of nights I wish that we were at home so that putting both kids to bed only took half an hour of time away from mine and Joe's time together, rather than feeling like it takes our entire night. My daily routine is definitely not my ideal, but that balance is just what my family needs right now because our situation isn't ideal, but we are working to make the best of the things that we can't control.