Helping Your Child Adjust to a New Sibling

No matter your child’s personality, they’ll have some adjusting to do when a new sibling enters the scene. These tactics will make the changes easier for the entire family.

Big sister toddler and baby sibling
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Adding a new baby is a sure way to shake up your family's life. Firstborns often struggle when they realize they're no longer the center of attention, and whether they're a toddler or elementary schooler, it's perfectly natural for them to experience feelings of jealousy. Each child will convey these complex emotions in different ways, ranging from excessive clinginess to regression to avoidance of the situation. The way you handle their reaction can affect whether your child seeds their new sibling as a friend or a foe.

Here, we spoke with experts to compile an age-by-age guide for helping your older child adjust to a new sibling.

Helping Kids Under 2 Adjust to a New Baby

Young children can seem almost clueless about the arrival of a new baby, but it can be an emotionally rough road to become a big brother or sister before the age of 2. "This is by far the hardest time for the firstborn to accept a new baby," says Fran Walfish, Psy.D., author of The Self-Aware Parent. "Every child needs a full tablespoon of Mommy all to herself. Two years is a full tablespoon. Less than that can increase sibling jealousy and resistance to accepting the baby as a full member of the family."

If your older child doesn't seem visibly upset by the baby's arrival, it's possible that they're still grieving the end of the way their life used to be. Often this grief doesn't show up as overt jealousy and tantrums until the baby becomes mobile and starts grabbing your older child's things.

How to Handle It

Enjoy the calm for now, if that's what you've got, and be sure to schedule some time alone each day with your toddler, even if it's just a 15-minute story while the baby is in someone else's arms. Remind yourself to smile when your toddler comes into the room, just as you did before you were so exhausted. (It doesn't take much energy to grin and to give affection to a little one who may need it.)

Of course, toddlers can be an unreasonable bunch, even without a new sibling. "Don't fall into the trap of negotiating or pleading with your child," says Dr. Walfish. If they whine that they want you to pick them up but you're nursing the baby, say: "You're sad that I can't pick you up right now. I'm sad too. Come snuggle up next to me and the baby. And when I'm finished, let's hug!"

Helping Toddlers Adjust to a New Baby (2-3 Years Old)

Many children this age become weepy, whiny, or clingy, especially after the novelty of a new baby wears off. "Ever since my baby came home, one of my 3-year-old twins has been super jealous," says Amy Shoaff, of Westchester, California. "She'll say she wants powder on her bottom, which she sees me putting on the baby, and she screams until she gets it."

Regression is a big sign of jealousy for toddlers. Kids may want to nurse again if they've been weaned or drink from a bottle when they've been happily using a sippy cup for months. Bedtime rituals may drag out and collide tragically with your baby's fussy period. Also, a child who has been sleeping in their own bed may suddenly want to sleep in yours, particularly if the baby is in your room. And if they've been sleeping through the night, they may start having nightmares or wanting to get in on the action when they hear the baby at 3 a.m.

"Most toddlers and preschoolers feel very conflicted about a new sibling. A part of them just wants to be a baby and another part, the part that says, 'I can do it myself,' wants autonomy and independence," notes Parents advisor Jenn Berman, Psy.D., author of The A to Z Guide to Raising Happy, Confident Kids.

How to Handle It

Give words to your child's mixed emotions. Try something like, "It looks like you really want to be a baby now too," suggests Dr. Berman. And then let your older child play baby for a while. The game may be fun for a time or two, but they're likely to tire of it after a while.

To help your child adjust to their new daily life, plan ahead while you're pregnant. "Bedtime routines inevitably are shortened when the new baby arrives," says Edward R. Christophersen, Ph.D., a clinical child psychologist at Children's Mercy Hospitals and Clinics, in Kansas City, Missouri. "So condense them ahead of time." If your child is accustomed to one parent handling the morning routine, transition to the other parent doing it sometimes before the baby is born. If the baby will be sleeping in your older child's crib, get them a toddler bed months before the baby arrives (or get another crib). It's also important to avoid blaming the baby for any negative changes in the house—that's a recipe for resentment.

Helping Preschoolers and Kindergarteners Adjust to a New Baby (4-6 Years Old)

Kids at this stage are often more understanding, and they can be pretty level-headed about the introduction of a new sibling. If the baby spits up on them, it's easier to explain that they didn't do it on purpose. And if the baby gets into the older child's toys, you can help them put away their favorites so the baby can't reach them. (Toys that are a choking hazard must always be kept out of reach.)

Preschoolers and kindergarteners have better coping skills, not to mention the ability to take turns or wait longer for a snack or a story. They also have more of a life of their own, between school, playdates, and activities. Your child's world is widening and they aren't so reliant on you to be their everything. That said, you're still the person to whom they're most attached; if they're not getting the attention they need from you, they may fear they're being left behind and act up.

How to Handle It

"One-on-one time with your older child is the best antidote to her fear of abandonment," says Dr. Berman. Even if it's just a trip to the grocery store, invite them to join you and leave the baby home with your partner if possible. And when the baby does things that might drive your older child nuts, be their advocate: Replace the torn book; let them shut out the wailing by listening to a soothing song on your phone. Say, "I know this is hard. Let's take a deep breath together."

Helping Older Kids Adjust to a New Baby (7-8 Years Old)

If you ask your kid how their day was, they might just say, "Fine." It takes more effort to get children this age to open up about what they're feeling, says Dr. Walfish. The challenge is getting them to express any jealousy that may lead to obnoxious behavior (such as defiance, back talk, or an overt disregard of the baby).

How to Handle It

Dr. Walfish recommends asking your child to remember what it was like to be the only child in the family and what's different about life now. You might ask what's hard and what's fun about the baby. If they let on that they're feeling jealous, reassure them of your love and ask if there's something you can do to help. Or tell them about a time when you felt jealous of your own sibling.

To help build the bond between your children, do your best to engage your older kid with the baby. Invite them to help wrap a towel around the baby after bath time, read the baby a story while you fold laundry beside them, or distract them with a song during a squirmy diaper change. But be careful that you don't rely on your older child to be a junior babysitter, which could quickly become a burden.

Tips for Handling New Sibling Jealousy

Every child is different, and ultimately they'll work through their feelings in their own way. That said, your loving support and patience is a crucial part of paving the way toward a positive relationship between your children. Here are some of the most important things to keep in mind as you navigate the process of dealing with new sibling jealousy.

  1. Don't try to "fix" your child's negative emotions; just do the best you can to understand and accept them.
  2. Feel free to be silly about the situation: "Yes, let's pretend to build a really nice dog house for the baby to live in! Maybe we can send Uncle Noah out there to live in it too!"
  3. But don't be so silly (or silly so often) that you minimize your child's feelings.
  4. Acknowledge it whenever they're being sweet with the baby.
  5. Know that adjusting to a new baby is an ongoing process. If you're unsure of what to do, talk to a smart parent friend who has older children, your pediatrician, or a counselor.
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