Welcoming a New Sibling

When a newborn comes home, don't be surprised if your toddler regresses from big kid to baby -- and back again.

Why They Regress

My husband and I have about a zillion reasons why our firstborn daughter, Zoe, is our pride and joy. But one particularly charming quality was her habit of disappearing into her room and coming back dressed in a new outfit. So what if she paired pink polka dots with orange stripes? The fact that she'd done it all by herself brought on the big hugs.

Not long ago, that delightful display of independence disappeared. At 2?, Zoe now wants us to pick out her clothes and dress her and even says, "Feed me, Mommy." The event that precipitated this relapse into babyhood? The birth of pride and joy number two, our daughter Tess.

As it happens, Zoe's reaction is almost comically typical. "It's normal for a toddler to regress when a new sibling arrives," explains Zeenat Malik, M.D., a developmental pediatrician at the Children's Hospital of New Jersey, in Newark. "Kids this age think in very concrete terms. They see someone who is wearing diapers and using a bottle getting all this attention, so they want to be like that baby. They think, If I wear diapers and drink from a bottle, Mom will give me the same attention."

This scenario is particularly common among children between 18 months and 3 years. At this age, a child's world still very much revolves around his parents, and there are few outside influences to distract him from what's going on at home. What's more, because toddlers lack the verbal and cognitive skills to express their jealousy, frustration, and anger, their only available means of showing emotion is to act out. It's quite common for potty-taught toddlers to start having accidents or to refuse to drink from the Sippy cup they mastered long ago. A child who has been sleeping through the night may revert to waking up: After all, the baby gets attention in the middle of the night, so maybe she will too.

Not surprisingly, a toddler's demands peak at those times when parents are focusing on meeting the needs of her sibling. "Whenever I started to nurse Zach, my 2-year-old daughter, Sidney, would crawl into my lap," says Catherine Lind, of Canton, Massachusetts. "Holding them both proved impossible. I told Sidney she'd have to wait until Zach was fed, and she came up with every imaginable need: 'I need a drink' or 'I want to play.' "

Often, though, a toddler's clinginess will persist throughout the day -- even when the baby is napping. "In a sense, the older child feels that he's lost you and needs to make sure you're still there," says Meri Wallace, M.S.W., a child and family therapist in Brooklyn and author of Birth Order Blues (Owl Books, 1999).

How to Help Her Cope

Here are ways to help a toddler deal with a sibling's arrival.

  • Don't overreact. Never ridicule or punish a toddler who wants to go back to using a bottle or wearing diapers. If your potty-taught child has an accident, don't make too big a deal. He's seeking attention, so a negative reaction may give him what he's looking for -- and spawn further backtracking. Dr. Malik advises parents simply to say, 'Oh, did you have an accident? You must have forgotten. You'll remember to use the potty next time.'"
  • Baby her a little. Don't say, "Stop acting like a baby," Wallace warns. That can cause anger to be directed at the infant. If your older child wants to try the bottle, give her one and let her take a few sips. Then gently find ways to get her back to the cup. You might even say, "Oh, you feel like acting like a baby right now? That's okay. But later, we'll go back to your big-girl things."
  • Praise more mature behavior. Make it clear that your child doesn't have to act like a baby to attract attention. Get back into the habit of cheering all her small accomplishments, just as you did when she was the sole apple of your eye. And provide lots of opportunities for her to act grown-up. Ask her to fetch a diaper or to hold the sponge while you're giving the baby a bath. Follow up with hugs of gratitude: "Thank you so much, my big girl!"
  • Compromise. When Lind's daughter asked to use diapers, her mother bought her training pants instead. The potty remained in full use, but Sidney felt that she'd gotten a bit of babying back and within a few days abandoned the training pants completely. If your child asks to breast-feed, she is probably interested only in the closeness that nursing provides. So offer your lap and lots of extra cuddles.
  • Talk about feelings. Help your child understand what's going on. You might say, for instance, "There's been a change in our family. It used to be just Mom and Dad and you. We had so much time to be with you. But now your younger brother is here, and we have to share our time. That's hard for you. And it's hard for us, too, because we love spending time with you."
  • Go one-on-one. Arrange for a friend or a baby-sitter to watch your baby so you can devote some time to your firstborn. Go to a museum, have a picnic, or simply take a long walk. Use the baby's nap as a special time to read, talk, or sing with your older child.

Understand, however, that no matter what you do, it will take time for your older child to get used to the enormous change that a new family member represents. So hang in there: Before you know it, you'll have two big kids on your hands -- and, if you're lucky, two very close friends.

Preparing Before Baby Arrives

Preempt your toddler's jealousy by preparing him for his new sibling.

  1. Visit a baby. Show your child what to expect by letting him spending some time with a relative or friend who recently had a baby.
  2. Buy a doll. Demonstrate how you'll be changing and feeding your new baby, and encourage your child to take care of the doll before the real baby comes -- and afterward too.
  3. Read a book. Many wonderful children's books discuss becoming a big brother or sister. Some good ones for this age include Arthur's New Baby Book by Mark Tolon Brown (Random House, 1999), and Little Bear Is a Big Brother by Jutta Langreuter (Millbrook Press, 1998).
  4. Involve him in preparations. Your older child can help get the nursery ready by stacking diapers or placing a cushion on a rocker. Recognize his contribution by saying, "What a wonderful big brother you are going to be when our new baby is here!"

Reprinted with permission from Parents magazine.

All content here, including advice from doctors and other health professionals, should be considered as opinion only. Always seek the direct advice of your own doctor in connection with any questions or issues you may have regarding your own health or the health of others.

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