The Day the Toddler Slapped the Baby

Dear Kids,

You’re most definitely going to grow up remembering the phrase “Your job is to be best friends.” I say it no fewer than twenty times on a bad day. And then on the good days I don’t say much of anything at all because I’m pretty sure you all are having too much fun to listen to anything that comes out of my mouth.

If you have children of your own, there’s going to come a time that your toddler slaps the baby and your first reaction is going to be the wrong one.  When Isaac welcomed Alexander into the family he was timid and tentative and curious. It was easy to recognize the love that he had for his little brother, even when his actions were guided by “this is what I would like, so I’m going to try to give it to Alexander”. It was easy to step back and simply explain that “babies can’t do that yet and that we have to be patient and that first Alexander needs to learn to sit up, then Alexander needs to learn how to crawl, then Alexander will get some teeth and eat mushy things and this will happen around when the snow falls and when you turn four.. ”

Then Anne-Marie was born. Alexander had been growing up with a big brother and so he was not tentative. He was so very curious, but he was also used to being the smallest one in the family and to having a very different dynamic.

Once we were home and settled in and it was just the four of us trying to find our new balance with daddy and grampa off to work and gramma making breakfast in the kitchen, Alexander walked confidently over to Anne-Marie and looked down at her smiling, and slapped her hard across the face.

She was one week old.

I remember my mother talking to me about when my brother used to take a flying leap onto the bed and one time he landed very very close to my newborn baby head. He was 2 years old, the same as Alexander. My mother told me that she picked him up by his hair and put him down a foot away and that he never did it again.

At the time I thought “Wow. That doesn’t sound like the way that she mothered us.” It seemed like a very valid response, though. You protect a newborn. It’s instinctual.

My mother was an only child who went on to have three children that she wanted to raise to feel like each had been an only child. We all remember the special things in our lives and we all remember the hurtful things, and we all try to give our children the lovely while avoiding the hurtful. My mom tried hard and gave us many lovely things and avoided many hurtful things.

My brother Tim and I are best friends. This is one of the gifts that she gave us through other things.

When Alexander slapped his little sister hard across the face, I did not pick him up by his hair. I did not hit him, I did not yell at him. Instead I deeply remembered my brother’s love for me and his protectiveness for me, and that story of way back when he was small and almost hurt me.

I picked Anne-Marie up as she turned purple in the face from a scream about to happen, and I asked Alexander if he wanted to hold the baby.

He did. And he held her for a half second before handing her back to me and telling me that she was crying. I nursed her, and I praised Alexander for the awesome job that he did holding his sister and I told him that she loves him a lot and that she likes it when he is gentle with her.

He slapped a newborn hard across his face, and I treated it as though he was simply being misguided and offering her a drink of his apple juice the way his older brother had offered him when he was a few weeks old. I look back and wonder if I was crazy. He hit her a few more times after that and each time I asked him if he wanted to hold the baby. He always did. Soon he asked to hold the baby, and every time he asked I would let him hold her even if she was sleeping at the time.

I got to see how Alexander responded when told “no, don’t hit the baby”, as others in the family would understandably tell him this. He would get upset and he would immediately hit her harder and I’d swoop in and ask him if he wanted to hold the baby. He would hold her and he wouldn’t hit again. Soon everyone was offering to let him hold the baby. And the hitting stopped.

As I write this to all of you, Alexander is two years and two months old. Anne-Marie is approaching six months, and Isaac is five and a half. The fastest way to stop a dispute is to tell all of you equally “One of you is upset right now. You need to remember how to listen to each other or you can’t play with each other for a while.” And you figure it out in marvelous ways that leave me completely confused. Alexander will, at two, apologize to his big brother and stop hurting him because he wants to be able to keep playing. Isaac, at five and a half will set up turn-taking. And if they can’t come to terms I’m teaching them to come to me and I will offer a solution.

This sounds like some crazy grand master plan that I have, it’s really not. I just remind myself as often as I remind each of you that your job is to be best friends. And then I try to figure out how each of you can be a better friend, and I tell you what each of you needs to do. “Take turns” works so much better than “let the toddler take the toy so that he’ll stop screaming.” It works so much better than splitting you up into your own tasks every single time that there is a conflict. (I save that for the Truly Terrible Days where neither of you is able to let go of what you’re feeling.)

My point is this- When your toddler hits the baby one of these days.. It’s not because your toddler is a mean abusive person that has to be yelled at in order for him to see his shameful ways. He’s doing it because he’s used to being the smallest one, and because he’s used to not really being able to hurt anyone around him. He doesn’t know what it is that he’s doing. He hasn’t developed empathy yet. He doesn’t know what a baby is.

Be gentle. Teach love. Teach empathy. Show him what he CAN do. Show him how to talk to the baby, wave to the baby, hold the baby’s hands. Recognize that he truly wants to interact, and show him how to interact in good ways. Show him that you love him and that you want to show him how awesomely cool his little sister or his little brother is. Recognize when he’s trying to do something fun with the baby or be nurturing towards the baby and redirect him into something more appropriate.

As I write this Alexander is wrestling with Anne-Marie. I’m cringing and am really writing this to avoid interfering. She’s smiling and giggling as he sits on her belly and pins her arms overhead and kisses her on the nose. My mantra is “She is smiling. She is not saying no. There is nothing to teach him or her right now. They are forming their relationship and their trust.” He tried to sit on her face and I said “nooo, you can’t sit on her face because then she can’t breathe.” and he asked me five times “can I sit on her face, mommy?” and I reminded him that she wouldn’t be able to breathe and “dangerous”.

This is how relationships are formed. Your job is to be best friends. My job is to keep you from killing each other in the process, and to settle the disputes that each of you is unable to settle with each other on your own. I encourage tattling because it lets me explain a fair solution. As each of you gets older you come up with your own solutions all on your own with the fairness that I have modeled each time “tattling” has happened.

As I write this the biggest problem that I face is that each of you wants to play with each other all the time instead of doing all the other stuff that needs to be done.

I like that problem. I really do. Even if it does mean that bedtime means pulling apart a giggling wrestling mass of children.

Your friendship makes me so very happy. I love what the three of you are building, and I love watching you build it with just a little help from us.

<3 Mama

*I write a lot about “me” in this letter because the friendship-building thing was the approach that I initially adopted. Your daddy, gramma and grampa have adopted this approach as well. So while I will greedily claim credit for the initial idea, they are just as involved in it as I am, and YOU three are the ones that truly do all the work. We’re just here with reminders now and again. I’m also sure that each of you would have figured out a friendship on your own eventually. I am just happy to see it all forming while all of you are so young, and to see all of you inventing a bond that is absolutely awesome. In truth our biggest role is to simply not interfere with the positive, and to help each of you make sure not to let the negative get out of control.



10 thoughts on “The Day the Toddler Slapped the Baby

  1. What you’re describing sounds idyllic, but I cannot even fathom the amount of work and patience it takes for you. It’s wonderful that you are able to build up a friendly relationship between your children; while my brother and I may not be best friends, we’ve always got each other’s back and are always there for each other. I’m not sure I could react so calmly in this situation!

    1. It takes a LOT of practice with a LOT of little things. My best mantras are “children are good at heart and when they are bad it comes from lack in my previous attempts at teaching.” and “he’s not giving me a hard time, he’s having a hard time.” as well as thinking a LOT about how I felt as a kid, and what my motivations were as a kid. I remember hitting as a child, and my intention was never to hurt someone, it was an expression of frustration or a lack of understanding about what I was supposed to do instead.

      I’m not perfect in my approach, but I try to spend a lot of time reading positive gentle parenting books and sites and thinking about how I respond to different things.

      It’s not a magical part of my character. I’ve never been very patient by nature. It’s a series of conscious decisions and a creation of new habits.

  2. Sarah, do you have any gentle parenting books that you would recommend? My daughter is currently 7.5 months old and I am thinking about her toddlerhood… Thanks!

    1. Christine,

      I’ve never found a book that really felt like “it” for me. I’ve taken bits and pieces from different places, but mostly I’m just trying to parent from a place that says my children are good people that just need to be shown positive things and that when they act out it’s because they have a need that hasn’t been addressed. Either they don’t know how to respond in a situation, or they haven’t learned coping techniques that work for them yet.

      I should look into gentle parenting books to see what is out there. :)


  3. Wow, this was so necessary for me to read today. I have less and less patience with my toddler as I get more and more sleep deprived lately (we have a four month old), and as my part time job gets more demanding (because I feel I should do more as the girls get bigger). So i often beat myself up when i lose patience. Your approach, especially “do you want to hold the baby?” – is a great idea. I often want to distract and/or redirect, but what my daughter really wants is to be involved in the interaction with the baby, and have my attention at the same time. Thanks for writing this post!

  4. The day my 2yo slapped his little sister, he was so mad. I had seated myself on the couch to nurse where I could watch him play. He climbed up on the couch, as he often did, stood up, and slapped her across the face with all of his might. I was so shocked that I actually had a brief moment of clarity before I reacted. I swooped her up into arms and told her how sorry I was that she was hurt. She screamed for a few seconds before calming down herself. My son was horrified by her reaction that his little lip quivered and, thankfully, he has never hit her again. It has been about 5 months since that incident…
    I *love* your suggestion of asking if he wants to hold her the next time he is doing something less appropriate for the clear intent of getting my attention (or hers). Thanks for the great idea!

    1. Our two and a half year old son is hitting our five week old. I know intellectually that your approach is right as when I have tried to focus on teaching him it is wrong he internalizes my displeasure and it escalates – and he knows we don’t hit and does it anyway. But I am having a very hard time letting the little guy be a teaching tool. Three times when I have stayed calm and let the older one give a nice touch instead, he has done so but then immediately hit again, and then I feel like a complete idiot for subjecting my newborn to this several times now. How do you deal with risking further harm in an effort to address the source insecurity that is causing the risk in the first place? I am vigilant but it seems I am just not always quick enough to block him. At best I have just said we don’t hit and moved on calmly, and later let him engage with the baby but hold his hands, saying I am going to help you with your hands while you give a kiss. But he still internalizes that as judgement so it has not stopped him looking for opportunities to hit. I cannot take letting my newborn be smacked in the face even one more time. Help!

      1. Meg,

        Does he hit things other than the baby? Like if you were to bring him to a petting farm and have him hold a baby chick would he hit the baby chick as well?

        How is the newborn being held when he hits? Where is he? How are you holding his hand?

        1. He seems to go for his head whenever it is in view. It has most often happened when the little one is in his cosleeper just waking or being changed but now I’ve mostly avoided that situation. It has also happened when I’ve sat for a moment while nursing or when he’s been being gentle and kissing then suddenly wham. It’s happened while my mom was holding the baby and my husband. Today he half landed one when I had the baby in the carrier and bent to fix his shoe as we were walking.

          He never hit before the baby was born and is great with animals and other kids. Since his brother was born he has also hit me, his dad and our friends’ one year old. At times it has seemed directly because he was jealous, others because he liked the cause and effect of the crying that happens when he hits and others just a random impulse out of a peaceful moment. It is more likely when he is tired.

          It has gotten better this week as I have realized how important it is that I do not spin into anxiety or anger, as even though I stay “calm” he senses that I am wound up. As i am more practiced at letting it go as soon as i say “we dont hit” he has calmed down. The hand holding had also worked but it has not completely stopped the hitting. I hold both wrists lightly and say I’m going to help him with his hands when he asks to kiss his brothers cheek. It has helped me block a few attempts but mostly they don’t happen because he likes this routine of visiting together with me helping his hands. When he does hit he carries it deeply. the next time he sees someone like my mom he says in a sad way “no hit” or “I hit Teddy” so I know it stays on his mind. It seems to be an impulse that upsets him as much as us because he knows it is a no-no.

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