Infant/toddler center-based care is an uncommon occurrence. I worked for many years in a group care setting with children ages three months to three years. This age range was, and is, uncommon because the state (California) discourages it. It was only through a loophole and a signed physician’s note that we were able to care for infants and toddlers concurrently in one room. For those of you less familiar with center-based care, infants are most often group by birth year, so zero to one, one to two, two to three… Well, you get the picture.
Why the hurdles to keep infants and toddlers apart? From my conversations with parents over the years, my best guess is that it’s based on fears. More specifically, fear of the toddler. Not any one particular toddler, of course, but the idea of toddlers being mixed in with the younger children. That wonderfully fast, three-foot tall person who loves to spin in circles sometimes without regard for surrounding objects (or some archetypical version of this toddler spirit) can be a bit scary when your own child isn’t yet completely mobile and thus not able to easily stay out of a toddler’s path.
The fact is, infants and toddlers do coexist in families, extended families, and through friendships. To isolate an age or stage circumvents plenteous opportunities for children to learn from and play with someone who has so much to teach.
My daughters are fifteen months apart (fourteen months and a day). When I am out with the two of them, I have heard all sorts of comments, ranging from empathy, to surprise, and lots of encouragement. At first, I felt as though I had joined some parent subculture that I was not aware of.
Whether in group settings like the one I worked in, with 12 children in one room, or in a home, infants and toddlers have so much to learn from one another, and I in both my role as parent and educator am learning quite a few things as well.
The Idea of the Toddler
In my home, older sister loves younger sister and vice-versa, BUT even in the best of times expressing that love in a safe way is more than challenging for an affectionate toddler and a curious infant. Relationships between infants and toddlers differ than relationships between same-age children or children born farther apart because of their sometimes limited ability to verbally communicate with one another, as well as their different physical abilities.
Though Greysen is very communicative verbally, she is an active toddler who prefers to interact with others physically. She is a regular perpetrator of the “hug and fall.” Her affections are no less demonstrative towards her sister (who is 10 months old as of this writing).
Even in the most generous and loving of moments, Greysen’s need for physical contact and movement can be at Moon’s expense (there are also many moments of acting on impulse that result in unhappy moments, but that is not the subject here). My aim, as was my aim in group care, is to help facilitate and foster positive interaction over time between children.
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Mike and I often think about the relationship between the two girls, as it has the potential to be the longest relationship in both of their lives. I want to encourage this relationship as often as I can, but at 25 months, Greysen is eager to play with her sister in ways that are more often pleasing to her than to her sister. This is my challenge. The tumble at the end of this video is of the best case scenario.
I have no doubt that there are countless ways to foster sisterly behaviors between my daughters, but there are a few things that I keep at the forefront of this long term effort that I’ll mention here.
I try to create an environment that encourages interaction. I think most about the Reggio Emilia concept of transparency. The idea is that, as educators, our efforts should be truthful and more than accessible to our community. As a parent, I make a very tangible effort to create spaces that beg for a play partner. Setting up play spaces like this one, where looking through something and most likely to someone, increases the likelihood that the girls will interact without my involvement. I’ve also set this up with one child on each side. The girls also sit across from each other at the dinner table rather than next to each other for the same reason.
I offer play materials in ways which increase the likelihood of interaction. Even though they use materials in different ways, infants and toddlers are capable of negotiating space and materials. While sharing is an unfair expectation for children at this stage, infants and toddlers can most often competently and safely hash out the use of materials on their own. At this age, ownership does not mean what it does to us as adults. By offering one big block of clay instead of two individual pieces, my daughters can work side by side and have a shared experience.
Knowing when not to facilitate is not always easy for me to determine. I look to both of my daughters’ cues to determine whether or not my interveningwill have a positive impact on their play. More often than not, they are capable of working things out between themselves. If I ever feel concerned for either of their safety, I am prepared to step in. A well-meaning acquaintance recently asked, “Are you okay with that,” referring to the way in which the girls were playing. I was OK with the way they tumbled a bit because they were. When I intervene depends on their reaction and comfort level. Though Moon is still an infant, she is strong and, in the instance below, is gleeful with her sister even though Greysen is mostly on top of her.
Playing peek-a-boo games helps Greysen interact with her sister in a way they can both enjoy.
Creating positive experiences between my daughters is a higher priority to me right now than other parenting practices that I highly value. I wholeheartedly believe in Magda Gerber’s principles regarding gross motor development, and specifically not placing children in positions that they can not get out of. I have more conversations regarding this with parents than most any other parenting practice. However, for me there are occasions (namely this one) when my parenting principles take a back seat to positive shared experiences between my daughters. Even though Moon can not climb into the swing on her own, the fun the two have swinging together trumps my parenting beliefs regarding gross motor development. Don’t let the fact that they can not easily see each other lead you to think that they do not interact. They are completely aware of each others’ presence and often twist around to share a giggle. My appreciation for this type of safe interaction on days when unsafe pokes or pinches seem to peak is indescribable.
Infants and toddlers can and, in my home, do co-exist. No, it is not always harmonious, but the same is true for most genuine relationships. Fostering relationships between very young children with differing capabilities may seem unsafe for the infant. However, toddlers – when supported in developing self-awareness – learn to step around infants, skip safely (sometimes miraculously) over tiny fingers, and may also show interest in caring for one another.
Typically, developing infants are also strong and capable of indicating their interests and discomforts, often without adult intervention. Our responsiveness to these often fleeting shared moments of play can either culminate in an authentic relationship or eliminate one. I believe that it is both the infant’s and the toddler’s right to experience relationships under a wide range of circumstances. While my priority is of course the protection of my infant’s physical well being her play also needs protection. To experience moments brimming with joy to moments charged with negotiation, are invaluable to the development of her relationship not just with her sister but to her future relationships as well.
Creating circumstances that lead to shared experiences is challenging for me (thus the exception of using a playground swing). If you have a favorite way to get your children to play together or have suggestions for me, I would love to hear them and try them out.