What to expect from your child when the new baby arrives.

By Cammie McGovern
October 03, 2005

Children may seem genuinely excited at the prospect of having a brother or sister. And parents, in turn, will entertain fantasies about a joyous sibling harmony. But the reality of bringing home a new infant is almost always a disappointment, especially for a child old enough to have had some expectations, says Dan Levy, MD, assistant clinical professor of pediatrics at the University of Maryland. Babies can't play, laugh, or even smile in the beginning and only seem to want an endless amount of their parents' attention.

As a result, some kids will withdraw and ignore the baby. Some will be hostile toward their new sibling. Others will act out in other ways, such as misbehaving, being more clingy than usual, or regressing into babyish behavior. They see the attention a baby is getting and want some of it themselves. All of this is normal, explains Dr. Levy. The good news is that this adjustment phase is temporary and the benefits of having a sibling far outweigh the initial setbacks.

Read on to find out what you can expect when you bring the new baby home and how you can promote family harmony.

Behavioral Issues

Here are some common reactions from a child at the introduction of a new sibling:

Disinterest: In the beginning, follow an older child's cues for how interested he is in helping or playing with the baby. An older sibling may hold back from an infant because he wants to watch what the baby does and what others do for him, or he may just be adjusting at his own speed. Some children prefer to more or less ignore a new baby until he gets more interactive, points out Dena Hofkosh, MD, director of the child development unit at Children's Hospital of Pittsburgh.

Regression: Expect your older child to regress a little when you bring the new baby home. Watching the attention the new baby gets, she will experiment with acting like a baby again herself. She may try to wedge herself into a baby exerciser or start waking up at night wanting some extra comfort and security. Within reason, experts advise making as little of these regressions as possible. If a younger child who has given up bottles or pacifiers wants one again, let her have it, but explain that these are things babies use, not big kids. If a child who's been toilet trained starts having accidents, clean her up quickly and tell her you're sure she'll do better in the future. For most children, this regression phase will pass within a few months.

Anger: All children act out to some degree when a new sibling comes home. But your child will be less likely to act out if he's getting enough one-on-one attention from both parents, says Dr. Hofkosh. Make a promise to read a book, play a game, or take a walk with him and stick to it. You can also provide your older child with safe ways to vent his frustration and jealousy -- Play-Doh to punch, block towers to knock down. Just as important is giving him words to express what he's feeling at the time: "I know it's hard that the baby has to nurse right now and I can't play with your cars with you. You must be feeling frustrated and mad."

If your child is saying things that seem a little harsh (such as "I want the baby to go back to the hospital!"), that's actually a step in the right direction, says Dr. Hofkosh. These are strong emotions and the best thing a parent can do is listen and acknowledge what her child is feeling. You might say "I know it's tough getting used to having a baby around. But I'll bet pretty soon you're going to like having a little sister to play with."

Safety Issues

Every child is going to test some limits and experiment with how hard they can poke, prod, and squeeze a new baby. It's important not to overreact. If she's looking for attention, you want to make sure this isn't the fastest way to get it, suggests Dr. Levy. Instead, teach your child gentle ways to elicit a response from the baby, and praise her lavishly when she does play appropriately with her baby brother or sister. You'll also need to remind your older son or daughter of some fundamental safety rules: always be gentle; never touch the baby unless an adult is there; ask before giving the baby a toy; never put anything on the baby's face; and never give food to the baby unless an adult says it's okay.

Sometimes rough behavior is unintentional. Your toddler may have a hard time recognizing his own physical strength and may "overlove" the baby with hugs and kisses as if it were a stuffed animal, says Dr. Levy. He suggests getting a special baby doll that your older one can feed and take care of while you're caring for the real baby. Children learn by imitation, and this is a great time for them to get a foundation in the skills of nurturing and parenting.

For some kids, though, rough play goes beyond experimentation. Without the language to express the complicated emotions they're feeling, kids may resort to hair pulling, hitting, or pinching to communicate their feelings a lot faster, says Dr. Hofkosh. Or they may misbehave -- throwing tantrums, making messes, and getting angry. Instead of paying attention to the behavior, remember that your child is probably behaving this way because she needs something -- cuddling, food, or sleep, points out Dr. Levy. When there's a new baby in the family, older siblings panic, worrying that their needs won't be met. Let your child know that you're there for her even when you're taking care of the baby. It's not what you say, but how you say it. Don't lose your composure, yell, or discipline harshly.

Building a Relationship

You can't force a child to bond with her new sibling, but you can invite her to be involved in low-key ways. Have your older child pick out a present to give the baby in the hospital -- and have the baby magically reciprocate with a gift as well, suggests Dr. Hofkosh.

Ask your 1-year-old to shake a rattle, tickle baby with a feather, or hold up a mirror for an infant to look into. Your 2-year-old can hand over a diaper or fetch a baby wipe, draw pictures to put up around the baby's crib, turn pages in a baby book, and sing songs or dance. In fact, from the time their eyes can focus well enough, most babies will love watching any performance a sibling wants to give.

With your supervision, you can also let a 3-year-old hold the baby on his lap, preferably on a sofa, where cushions can help support the baby's head. This teaches your child a great deal about how gentle and protective of his vulnerable sibling he needs to be, says Dr. Hofkosh.

Preschoolers who are having a harder time adjusting to the competition a baby brings may prefer the idea that they are helping you rather than the baby. Asking your child to bring you a book or a glass of water while you're nursing will get him involved without forcing him to interact with the baby.

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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