Cross parenting – improving toddler behavioural outcomes

icon share Share
April 01, 2022
5 min read

Cross-Parenting is the Best Way to Prevent Cross Parenting

One of the most common remarks following the birth of a second child, is the behavioural deterioration that occurs in the older child – when the new addition reaches 3 months of age. Combined with the sleep deprivation of the newborn phase, parents can find themselves with little tether, quick to anger and struggling to juggle the rapid familial expansion. In short, they become cross parents.

Thankfully this is entirely preventable; not only is there a solution, it’s irrefutably backed by science. Most importantly, it’s incredibly simple to implement.

So why does this predictable behaviour deterioration exist?

3 months is the average window of time that a child will enjoy a new toy, before becoming tired of it – and wanting to move on to something else. When it comes to a newborn, we can’t just pop them in a box at the top of the cupboard at 3 months of age. So toddlers understandably become frustrated that this now-old toy continues to divert attention; in a nuclear family, they become especially perturbed by the decreased availability of their mother.

In this aforementioned nuclear family – with mother, father and 2 children – the ostensibly logical play is to have mum care for the newborn and dad spend time with the toddler. I refer to these parents as likeships in the night, orsingle parents who live together. While this does allow for beautiful mother-baby bonding and terrific father-toddler relationship growth – it drives immense toddler frustration with family-wide consequences, but it simply doesn’t have to be this way.


What if we swapped parental roles almost entirely?

The father takes care of the newborn and the mother manages the toddler. With a breast-fed baby, the singular act that a father cannot do is breastfeed this child, but everything else is not only possible – it’s actually preferable. Have dad perform all the baby duties, from winding to changing, and settling to bathing. Mum is now free to rest, replenish milk if breastfeeding, recover from the pregnancy/birth and importantly – spend consistent, frequent, quality time with her toddler – making them feel that they remain the very centre of their mother’s universe.

This does not in any way dent the mother-baby bond, nor does it diminish the father-toddler connection. It also brings parents closer, with more collaboration and communication within the family unit.

So, the benefits to the toddler are clear and demonstrable, the maternal advantages are tangible and undeniable, plus the baby sleeps through the night earlier (see my earlier blog on why babies should be sleeping on dad’s side of the bed).

The effect on fathers:

Yale University professor Ruth Feldman studied emotional processing systems in new mothers and fathers; the results were simply astonishing. Follow me on this… in the lower part of our brain we have something called the limbic system, a set of brain structures that includes the amygdala.This is important for processing memory and drives emotions like fear, anxiety and aggression. If you were to watch a woman’s amygdala (as these researchers did, with complex MRI scans), you can see it enlarge significantly upon the birth of a child. The amygdala grows and becomes more active, which is what drives a mother’s hypersensitivity to their baby, making her attentive, loving, worrisome and deeply affectionate.

What Feldman discovered was that primary-caregiving fathers (either stay-at-home, single, homosexual fathers – or the cross-parenters) exhibited high amygdala activation, similar to mothers. A direct link was discovered between time spent parenting and amygdala activation.‘Pregnancy, childbirth and lactation are very powerful primers in women to worry about their child’s survival,’ said Feldman. ‘But fathers have the capacity to do it as well as mothers, they need daily caregiving activities to ignite that mothering network.’

Lower rates of postnatal depression & anxiety

The benefits don’t end there —– thanks to increased paternal involvement, these families have lower rates of maternal AND PATERNAL post-natal depression and anxiety – and most importantly, toddler behaviour deterioration simply doesn’t occur and you’re building stronger foundations for an excellent sibling relationship forever.

Dads! It’s not the act of childbirth that offers up this amygdala surge – it’s not limited to mothers. It’s just being close to a newborn, it’s settling a cry, changing a nappy, striving for that reciprocal smile. Giving love to this little bundle of joy is what opens up this well of unconditional love and emotion, you can actuallychange your brain.

Finally, workplaces and governments are starting to wake up to this reality, and we’re seeing more modern companies offer elongated paternity leave packages. This is the seismic societal shift we need, for fathers to be more involved in the care of newborns – for the immeasurable benefit to the baby, the undoubtable benefit to the mother – but more than all of that combined – for the infinite benefit to us as fathers.

Cross parenting summary:

The aim of cross parenting (a role reversal where dad/non breastfeeding parent focuses on the newborn & mum on the older sibling) is to:

✅ minimise toddler behavioural deterioration that often occurs around 3mths after a newborn sibling arrives

✅ allows mothers to rest, recuperate & maintain close relationship with older toddler siblings

✅ creates a phenomenal shift (actual brain/hormone change) in dads/non breastfeeding parents

✅ allows the whole family to get a whole nights sleep ASAP (those following the Dr Golly Sleep Program will know routines don’t start until your baby is 6 weeks 5-6kg)

FAQs on Cross Parenting:

1. Will this impact the mother newborn relationship?

ANS: Cross parenting does not diminish the mother/newborn relationship, an emotionally available, well rested mother with an emotionally balanced toddler will find attachment to all children (& partner) easier.

2. Is this breastfeeding friendly?

ANS:  Cross parenting is breastfeeding friendly. So much of my practice & philosophy is about protecting the breastfeeding mother & this is no different. Cross parenting assumes a great deal of the first 4 weeks will be spent doing this – BUT that’s the ONLY job that can only be done by mum, everything else is up for grabs! Think: burping, nappies, changing, bathing, settling, grocery shopping, food prep, cooking, laundry….yep there’s a lot more than breastfeeding!!

3. How does this work for parents without generous paternity leave packages?

ANS: Cross Parenting is not just for families with generous paternity leave packages: in the first few weeks of life these jobs are 24/7 so for some families the switch may happen in the mornings, the evenings, night settling & weekends

Article link: