Adjusting to Being an Older Sibling

Congratulations! You're the mom of a bouncing new baby... and a cranky, confused, and jealous toddler. Here, ways to smooth your little one's transition from only child to big brother or sister.

sibling sisters
Photo: SokolovaMaryna/

When my younger son, Zachariah, was born, my biggest concern was how my older one, Zain, would react to him. Zain, 3 1/2, has his wild side, and I worried that his baby brother would be in for it.

Happily, a combination of luck, prayer, and intervention seems to have won out--big brother has transformed into mother hen. For the first two months, Zain hung on the baby's every coo, belted out "Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star" whenever Zach cried, and promised to take his brother to space with him when he becomes an astronaut. By the third month, the novelty had worn off somewhat--half a day could pass without Zain's so much as glancing at little Zach--but Zain definitely continues to enjoy his big-brother status.

The introduction of a new sibling doesn't always go so smoothly. In fact, having a baby suddenly appear out of nowhere is enough to test the mettle of any toddler. "The arrival of a new child is interpreted as 'less for me,'" says Adele Faber, coauthor of Siblings Without Rivalry. "Less lap, less smiles, less time, less attention. It can be very threatening."

Bringing home child number two is usually toughest on kids between 18 months and 3 years of age. Any younger and they're somewhat unaware; any older and they've got other stuff going on besides you. It's not uncommon for toddlers to exhibit aggression, regression, jealousy, ambivalence, or a combination of these. Instead of overreacting to your child's negative behavior, validate his feelings and help him figure out safe ways to express them. "Acknowledge that everyone is getting used to changes in the family," says Lori Gillaspie, R.N., a certified childbirth educator in Indianapolis. It's reassuring when someone listens and understands your feelings. Of course, you should get your older child comfortable with the idea of a little brother or sister long before you bring the new baby home. Follow our three-phase plan to lay the groundwork for a more peaceful sibling relationship right from the start.

1. Before The Baby Is Born

What to Expect: As far as your toddler is concerned, this unseen "baby" you keep talking about is just some imaginary friend whom you'll eventually outgrow. Still, she can't help but be affected by your fluctuating emotions and by the changing energy of the house?you're less willing to play on the floor; there's new gear showing up everywhere; and random people keep asking if she's excited.

What to Do:

  • Put off other big changes. Schedule any milestone events?potty teaching, moving from the crib to a big-kid bed, starting preschool?as far as possible from your due date. That way your child won't associate the change with the baby's arrival but rather with growing up, Gillaspie explains.
  • Don't use the baby as an excuse. During your pregnancy, there will be things you can no longer do for your toddler, like carry him up the stairs to bed. To stave off resentment, don't blame your limitations on the bulge in your tummy. Instead, say your back aches or your feet hurt.
  • Don't create false expectations. If you tell your child that the baby will be his playmate, he'll be mighty disappointed when she does little but sleep, cry, and feed. Give him the real scoop. Talk about what he was like as an infant. Take him to visit friends who have babies.
  • Give your child a sense of investment in the baby. We told Zain, "You are this baby's protector and teacher. He'll learn how to do everything by watching you."

2. In The Hospital

What to Expect: Your child's routine is thrown off to the nth degree when you leave home and suddenly morph into two people. She hasn't seen you all day, and she may be startled to find you in a strange bed, in a strange gown, with a stranger on your bare chest. She may freak out.

What to Do:

  • Make the big sibling the star of the show. Have your arms open to welcome your firstborn when he sees you after the birth. Give him some undivided attention before presenting the baby. When you do show him his new brother or sister, also give him the really big gift that the baby "brought" for him.
  • Go crazy with pictures--of your first kid. Let your child see tangible evidence of herself in the hospital room. We put pictures of Zain on my bedside table, taped a few inside the bassinet, and tucked one inside Zach's blanket.
  • Involve friends and family. Ask visitors to greet your toddler first, before making a beeline for the baby, Gillaspie says. Ask friends to talk about how lucky the baby is to have him as a big brother, instead of telling him how lucky he is to be the big brother.

3. At Home

What to Expect: "This very little person is taking up a very big amount of space--physically and emotionally," says Nancy Samalin, author of Loving Each One Best. From your older child's point of view, there's a constant stream of visitors, none of whom are gazing adoringly at her or bringing presents in her size. You're recovering physically while adjusting to sleepless nights, so you've got little energy left for her. And the culprit responsible for this has the nerve to cry--loudly--while Dora is on.

What to Do:

  • Give your big kid a role in the festivities. Have him greet visitors, and ask him to introduce them to the baby.
  • Be available to your firstborn. Whenever friends are on hand to help, have them do as much as possible for the baby so you can focus a bit on your older one.
  • Foster hero worship. When you coo to your newborn, make it all about how lucky he is to have such a wonderful big sister, says Faber. Every time your baby babbles, "translate" for your older child: "Look, he's smiling at you! He only does that when you're around." It's hard not to love somebody who so clearly adores you.
  • Preempt power struggles. Expect a tug on your elbow every time you sit down to nurse. To discourage a sense of rivalry during feeding time, invite your big kid to snuggle up for a story while you're nursing.
  • Show her that the baby doesn't always come first. Your older child will have to learn to wait sometimes while you tend to your newborn. But to soothe the sting, point out that sometimes the baby has to wait too. When I'm doing something with Zain, I'll mention something that Zach needs, like a diaper change, and say, "I'm sorry, Zach, but you'll have to wait a minute. It's Zain's turn now. I'll change your diaper after I finish reading Zain this page."
  • Point out the advantages of getting older. To your big kid, the benefits of being a baby are apparent. If you're 3 and you scream, you get yelled at for waking the baby. If you're a baby and you scream, you get picked up and cuddled. Help your child see the benefits of being older. He gets to ride his bike, play with friends, eat ice cream.
  • Hug, kiss, and repeat often. "Keep reassuring your older child of her place in the family," Gillaspie says. "And remind her that love is stretchy -- there's enough for everybody."

Copyright© 2004. Reprinted with permission from the November 2004 issue of 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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