One of my favorite people called last week to ask that age-old mom question, “How do I keep a toddler busy now that I have a new baby?”
This question made me smile because it was coming from an amazing kindergarten teacher. KINDERGARTEN teacher. You know, entertainer and educator of twenty 5-year-olds. I clearly remember standing in the doorway as I dropped off my triplets each day and marveling at how she seemed to magically keep them all happy and teach them while keeping the room tidy and looking like she stepped off the cover of a magazine. Juggling knives seemed easier.
Whether your older child(ren) are 18 months or 4 years, you don’t have the school day to help out when the new baby arrives. Many hours alone with more than one child seems overwhelming to almost every parent who has experienced it, even a parent used to teaching 20 children.
As my Parents as Teachers educator friends taught me many times, the solution to this parent problem is within easy reach. The key to keeping everyone happy and maintaining your sanity requires: a baby carrier you love, hand sanitizer, a structured day, and some preparation time.
Babies are happiest when held, and hearing and seeing new things keeps those little brains stimulated. Older kids need mom’s help, which generally means mom’s hands. Enter the baby carrier. You can hold baby and provide baby with the stimulus of your voice and visions of different places as you move through the day while magically having two free hands to help your older child(ren).
You’ve been super careful to keep the baby away from germy people and situations for the first 2 months because you know that his immune system is at its weakest then. But, did you know his immunity won’t approach yours until he is 2 years old? Hand sanitizer is like your Super Mom weapon; there in a pinch to save the day when the nearest soap and sink are miles away.
When my kids were between the age of 18 months and 4 years, we had a schedule to the day which gave those many hours structure and made the mountainous task of keeping everyone happy seem less daunting. They woke up, ate breakfast, played with toys while I cleaned up and packed the diaper bag, and then out we went. We went somewhere almost every day. People used to make comments that I was a “terrific mother” because I took the kids out on an adventure every day to learn new things. I was quick to say the excursions were as much for my sanity as they were for the kids’ development. I would have done anything to avoid the crabbies, those days that deteriorate into crying, whining, fighting and acting out. Breaking the day into scheduled chunks prevents 90% of the crabbies. In general, more than two hours in one place doing the same thing makes children under 4 years begin to seek negative attention. They climb on unsafe things, they fight and they act out, and, as a parent, the normal response is to intervene. But as all seasoned parents know, this is not a good habit loop to develop. Whatever action gets attention will be done more, so the parent sweet spot is to “catch them being good” — often to encourage positive behavior and extinguish negative behavior. Getting out to new places allows so many opportunities to point out new and terrific behaviors.
Here are six of my favorite daytime adventures. Once you find five that you love, just repeat them each week; no more planning needed. Depending on where you live, these exact opportunities may not be available. My goal is to stimulate your planning about local options based on what themes worked for me.
- Gymnasium: one of the local YMCAs offers a toddler gym time a couple times a week. It consists of a large gym with one door to enter that is monitored by an employee. The keys to this being successful for a mom with older kids and a baby are the fact that only kids under 5 are allowed during this play time. So, no worries about your little one being bowled over by a 7-year-old brute. The monitored door which means your toddler can’t escape while your eyes are down on your baby changing a diaper or feeding and the endless supply of appropriate gym equipment for this age. My three would run and play, tumble and push large foam balls and other toys we didn’t have at home for the full hour and a half session. Then we would leave, wash hands on the way out and eat a picnic lunch in the car. By the time we arrived home, I would have three sleeping kids and an hour or so to catch my breath.
- Park date: Ok, I know, some parks can be a disaster with more than one child. So, this is where planning is key. Put on your deerstalker hat, pull out a pad of paper and channel your inner Sherlock. Your goal is to find a few parks that meet these criteria: fenced-in or walled-in play area with a gate, soft surfacing that is not provided by ingestible pea gravel or wood chips, a close bathroom, parking close to the playground that doesn’t require you to cross the parking lot to get to the playground, and fun, toddler-appropriate playground equipment. Like the gym, in this setting your little one(s) can run and play with intermittent interaction with you but if you need to change a diaper or it begins to suddenly rain, the setting is such that you can keep your older one(s) safe traveling to the car, or if you need to attend to the baby.
- Museum or Science Center: Like the gymnasium, many museums and science centers have enclosed, toddler-appropriate play areas and times. We would spend 30 minutes to an hour looking at displays outside that area on our way in, then do the enclosed play area, then head out to the car to wash hands and eat lunch. If your baby is fed and happy, you can look at the outside displays. If it is one of those days when a feeding is needed or the older kids are being less cooperative, make a bee-line for the enclosed toddler area.
- Restaurant or shopping mall with an indoor play land: Fast food gets a somewhat deserved bad rap. But, with a little planning, kids can get a healthy meal and some exercise, too. Now you can buy apple slices and raw veggies. But, these weren’t offered when my kids were little, so I just packed them as well as their leak-proof cups. I bought one large water to refill cups, a protein and salad and supplemented the rest of the meal with things from home. Many malls have similar play areas.
- Botanical Garden: Our local botanical garden is huge but it has large walls. It remains one of my favorite places to go with my kids to this day, in large part because of the terrific memories I have of our time there together when they were little. It was a bit like visiting The Secret Garden. Once we entered, we were in a whole different world, one free of cars and other dangers that require constantly holding a toddler’s hand and vigilantly scanning ahead. Our local botanical garden has a Koi pond toward the back. A candy machine dispenses fish food for a quarter. So, for 75 cents we had an adventure- keep moving forward to get to the fish pond where they enjoyed putting the quarter in the machine almost as much as feeding the fish. It was a long walk, but along the way we could talk about plant names, colors and shapes. In summer, I packed a change of clothes and a towel and they would play in water fountains on the walk back toward the car.
- The “I don’t have the energy,” stay in the car date: For those days when you or your older child(ren) have a cold or just don’t feel up to an adventure, the car date is a great solution. You get out of the house and the kids get stimulation, but not as much energy is needed. Find a sculpture park, animal park or construction site. If it’s a sculpture park or animal park, drive through and talk about what you see along the way. If it’s a construction site, park where everyone can clearly see the large equipment working and talk about all that is happening. Then, break out a picnic lunch, eat it while looking at the view and drive home for nap time.
A brief word about cost. Many of these ideas require visiting places that have a fee. Many have yearly memberships. Instead of toys for presents, my parents and other family members would kindly give us memberships. Almost all museums, science centers and botanical gardens have days that are free. Call or check the websites to keep costs down.