How to Help Your Firstborn Adapt to Baby

Worried that the new baby is going to upset your older child? Use these simple steps now to help them be the best of friends.

No Longer the Baby

When I was pregnant with my second child, my biggest concern wasn't my horrible morning sickness or decorating the nursery. It was how my then 2 1/2-year-old daughter would feel about our new addition and if I could ward off sibling rivalry before my son even arrived. And I know I'm not alone.

Whether you're about to add a child to your family or already have two (or more) squabbling kids, how they get along is probably on your mind. "Though sibling rivalry is natural (and inevitable), being proactive in those early days and years can have a big impact on your children's relationship down the road," says Laurie Kramer, PhD, professor of applied family studies and director of the Family Resiliency Center at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign.

At the heart of sibling rivalry is the fact that brothers and sisters have to share their parents' love and attention as well as space and possessions. They're also figuring out their place in the family and concerned about fair treatment and control. The good news? "Eventually, your children learn to adapt to one another and share their parents with each other," says T. Berry Brazelton, MD, author of Understanding Sibling Rivalry: The Brazelton Way (Perseus Books). Here are 15 ways (some of them simple) to help make that happen.

Adapting Once Baby's Home

  • Screen the sibling stuff. Before sharing those "becoming a big sister or brother" books and DVDs with your child, take a look at them. "A lot of the information that's meant to prepare kids for a new baby focuses on the conflict or dissatisfaction that comes with having a sibling," says Kramer. In her research, a lot of mothers said that their children felt positive about having a sibling and that they were worried these conflict-ridden books and shows were introducing their kids to issues they weren't even thinking about. "They can give kids the idea that not getting along is a possibility," says Kramer. Look for materials that depict the big brother or sister as caring and warm (one of our favorites is I'm a Big Sister or I'm a Big Brother by Joanna Coles). Save those that highlight negative emotions (like Za-Za's Baby Brother by Lucy Cousins) until after your child has experienced these feelings, so she's reassured they're normal.
  • Don't keep the baby a mystery. Even kids as young as 18 months to 2 years can feel that things are changing, so not mentioning your new addition until he arrives is a bad idea. "Talking about the baby ahead of time helps to prepare your child," says Dr. Brazelton. "Your discussion is not so much an announcement as an acceptance of the baby as a future step for the whole family." Accentuate the positives by telling your older child that she'll have someone new to love. Explain that this baby will be her little sister or brother, so she'll see having a sibling as a privilege or gift. Then again, don't overdo it. "Too much discussion of the wonder of it all will set her up for even more rivalry with the 'thing' in Mommy's tummy," says Dr. Brazelton.
  • Depict the baby as a real person with his own needs and interests. For example, explain how babies need milk and diapers and that they sleep a lot. "Research shows that parents who talk openly to their children before the new baby and who explain that he or she is a real person tend to have kids who get along better down the road," says Kramer. "We talked about the baby a lot with my 5-year-old daughter. We let her pick things for his room and had her draw pictures for him," says Alyssa Sadoff, a mother of two from New York City. "By talking about the baby, without taking the focus off her, there was no jealousy, just excitement and enthusiasm when her brother finally arrived."
  • Encourage friendships. Studies show that children who have at least one close friend before their sibling is born have better relationships with their new brother or sister. Kramer followed kids from when they were toddlers until they graduated from high school and found that this impact was long term.
  • Don't blame your belly. While you're pregnant, your growing midsection may be the reason you can't get down on the floor for a tea party with your toddler. But don't tell her that. She may think it's the baby's fault, and resentment may build before your little one is even born.
  • Give your older child someone to love. When you come home from the hospital with your bundle of joy, give your older child a new doll or animal to care for. "This way he can nurture it while you nurture the baby, which gives him something to do while you're busy, and it can help him identify with you a little bit more," says Dr. Brazelton. This strategy worked for Sara Mason Ader, a mother of two from Hingham, Massachusetts. "The one thing that got my 2-year-old daughter to sit still (and stop climbing on me) when I was nursing my son was that she sat next to me, pulled up her shirt, and 'nursed' her doll too."
  • Boost his ego. Make your child feel proud and connected to the new baby by saying things like, "She only smiles like that when you're around" or "She likes when you hold her bottle." You can also make your older child feel good by having him show the little one how he does things, such as put on his socks or brush his teeth.
  • Create a little helper. While you're pregnant, let your older child choose a few things for the baby (such as books or toys). When he is born, let her help you feed, bathe, and dress him (with age-appropriate boundaries, of course). For example, a preschooler can fetch you a diaper or pick which bodysuit her little brother will wear that day. Assisting you will make her feel included and important. However, if she does not want to help, don't force it, or it can be counterproductive.
  • Don't downplay the baby. "Some conventional advice suggests de-emphasizing the importance of the new baby compared to your older child," says Kramer. "But that could start a life of competition between the siblings or make the older one feel entitled to special treatment." Instead, explain that new babies require a lot of attention and that she received the same treatment when she was a baby, but she doesn't need that help anymore. "Your child is more likely to understand if you link your behavior to the baby's needs," says Kramer. My daughter responded well when I explained that babies are so tiny and new that they don't know how to do anything like feed or dress themselves -- things that "big" girls like her were so good at. When I emphasized this, not only was she more accepting of her little brother, but she was so proud of being older that she tried to be even more independent.

As They Get Older

  • Stay out of it. When it comes to older kids, unless something dangerous is happening, don't jump in the middle of an argument or get worked up when they fight. "When parents get involved, it makes fighting more exciting to the kids, and they may use it as a way to get your attention," cautions Dr. Brazelton. Plus, taking sides or jumping to one child's defense can lead to resentment. Letting them solve problems and compromise teaches them valuable life skills.
  • Boast about their good behavior. Instead of giving your children attention when they're bopping each other with Mega Bloks, do it when they're good. "Praise them when they work out a conflict or are sharing, and point out how good it is that they have managed on their own," says Kerry Caverly, an early childhood expert at the Parents as Teachers National Center. Kids love positive reinforcement, so they may keep it up in hopes of getting more.
  • Don't separate them. "A lot of parents are so concerned about minimizing conflict between their kids that they tend to keep a toddler away from an infant, get them involved in different activities, or give them separate bedrooms," says Kramer. "These things may subtly give kids the message that it's not important for them to develop a strong relationship." Instead, make sure to tell your kids that their bond is special and find things they enjoy doing together.
  • Lose the labels. You probably know that you shouldn't compare or label your kids, but make sure others (from strangers to grandparents) don't do it either. For example, you call one of your kids "artistic" or "athletic." "This may induce competition, because it puts a value on being artistic or athletic and makes a child think he's not as valuable as his brother if he's not that way," explains Caverly.
  • Carve out time for each kid. With busy families and lives, it's easy for a younger child to constantly trail along to an older one's activities. This can lead to resentment if the little one thinks the world revolves around his big brother or sister. "Make time to do something special with each child," says Caverly. And when you are, say, watching your firstborn play soccer, make your youngest feel important by designating him the game photographer.
  • Remember that fair doesn't always mean equal. "As a parent, you can't treat your children equally because they're different people," says Caverly. For example, one child may respond to being disciplined with a time-out, while another responds just from hearing you raise your voice. You have to use what works for each. This also goes for when you're taking one child out and not the other. For example, even if you're taking your younger child to the doctor, the older one may be jealous at not having you to herself. Explain that today her sister needs to go to the doctor and that another day she will. If kids feel there is a reason for being treated differently and that it's justified, you'll stir up less rivalry.
Siblings hugging
Erin Patrice O'Brien

I'm happy to report that all my worrying about how my daughter would feel about a new baby and how well they'd get along turned out to be unnecessary. Yes, there are days when she will tackle my 2-year-old for touching her markers, or he'll throw an Elmo doll at her. But far more often, I'll find them laughing together, playing tag, and cuddling on the couch watching Dora. At least for now.

From Firstborn to Sibling

How your first may fare during those first months with a new baby are uncharted territory, says T. Berry Brazelton, MD, author of Understanding Sibling Rivalry: The Brazelton Way (Perseus Books). Here are a few things to expect from your firstborn child:

  • Tantrums may become more common, especially when the baby is getting attention.
  • During the baby's fussy period at night, a toddler may also have a meltdown.
  • To pull you away from your new addition, your older child may seek out a forbidden activity that he knows you'll react to.
  • He or she may slide backward in any new developmental area such as talking, sleeping through the night, or potty training.
  • Some children get through the first months easily without acting up and may even be helpful and compliant. But this probably won't last, so expect some of the above at a later date.

Rewards of Having Siblings

While having more kids means a heavier workload for Mom and Dad, as well as a bigger financial burden, "nothing can be more of a gift to a child than a sibling," says T. Berry Brazelton, MD, author of Understanding Sibling Rivalry: The Brazelton Way (Perseus Books). Here's why:

  • All that bickering is teaching your kids to negotiate, compromise, solve problems, and recognize other people's needs.
  • Siblings learn how to tolerate painful emotions, because fights with a brother or a sister can often be harsher than those with others in their life.
  • Younger siblings have someone older to watch and learn from constantly, while older siblings get experience nurturing, teaching, and leading.
  • Brothers and sisters learn to share and to enjoy giving to others.
  • Siblings have companionship and a close friend for life.

Mom's Little Helpers

Adapting to a bigger brood takes time, but your older kids may adopt a doting (even helpful!) role:

"If I'm changing Nora's diaper, Maeve says, 'Okay, Nora, let me sing you a song.' Nora just sits there and stares at her big sister." -- Kate, Summit, New Jersey, mom to Maeve, 3, and Nora, 1

"I call Zachary the 'third parent.' Right now he's "teaching" Andrew to use the potty!" -- Alisa, Boxford, Massachusetts, mom to Zachary, 7, and Andrew, 3

"Cassidy has a lot of fun pretending Cale is her prince or her puppy, which keeps them both happy!" -- Colleen, Missoula, Montana, mom to Cassidy, 4, and Cale, 21 months

"At a party, one of the older kids was yelling at Veronica. Anita said, 'Stop yelling at my sister! You're going to make her cry.' I was touched by her protectiveness." -- Sonia, East Greenwich, Rhode Island, mom to Anita, 4, and Veronica, 19 months

"My boys were very sweet when our third child was born. Matthew gave Chris toys that he wouldn't be able to play with for years, and Jack became upset if he thought I wasn't responding to the crying quickly enough." -- Kate, Pelham, New York, mom to Jack, 10, Matthew, 7, and Chris, 5

Michele Bender is a mother of two and a freelance writer in New York City.

The information on this Web site is designed for educational purposes only. It is not intended to be a substitute for informed medical advice or care. You should not use this information to diagnose or treat any health problems or illnesses without consulting your pediatrician or family doctor. Please consult a doctor with any questions or concerns you might have regarding your or your child's condition.

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