Welcoming a new sibling to the family can be an exciting but difficult time. Whether you’re giving birth or awaiting adoption, you may be wondering how you can help your child adjust to having a new sibling in the home. Making an effort to understand your older child’s feelings and helping them cope can go a long way in easing this adjustment.
What can I expect from my older child when a new sibling arrives?
Children vary in how they react to a new sibling. Your child’s reaction to a new baby will likely depend upon their age and maturity level, ability to understand the change, and how you guide them through this adjustment.
It is common for children to display emotions like anger, jealousy, and sadness upon the arrival of a new baby. Temper tantrums are also common, especially among toddlers. Children may also shift between positive and negative reactions. At times it may feel like an emotional roller coaster, but rest assured that these reactions are normal.
There is no way to predict exactly how a child will respond to a new baby, but there are common reactions you might see among certain age groups.
Under two years old
Children in this age group are too young to understand the concept of a younger sibling. However, they may notice a shift in their normal routine and have reactions to that. Children this age may show interest in the new baby and excitement about being an older sibling. At the same time, they may also exhibit temper tantrums, anger, and regressions in their behavior. For example, a child that was previously potty trained or sleep trained may start having accidents or waking up at night. These regressions are common and normal.
Two to four years old
By this age your child will have grown a lot and have some ability to communicate how they are feeling. Children this age may show interest and excitement in a new baby, as well as jealousy over how much attention the new baby receives. Like the earlier age group, regressions are common, especially because children this age may have recently gone through potty training.
Five years and older
Children this age are likely to understand what having a new sibling means and may see how some of their friends have adjusted to being big sisters or brothers. It’s not uncommon for older children to want a sibling, so they may have positive feelings about a new baby. They also may be well established in their routines, which can help them with this adjustment. If your child is already in school, this may serve as a good distraction. However, jealousy can still come up from time to time.
How should I introduce a new sibling to my family?
Introducing a new sibling to the family often starts before the baby arrives. While pregnant or awaiting adoption, you can help your older child get to know their new sibling by talking about the baby’s arrival and answering any questions. If you’re pregnant, you can encourage your child to sing or read to your belly, share ultrasound photos, and ask for their help preparing the nursery. You can also role play how to care for a newborn and encourage your child to practice on dolls or stuffed animals. Just like you are developing a bond with your new baby before their arrival, so too can your older child.
If possible, plan any big changes, like transitioning out of their crib, potty training, or switching caretakers, several months prior to or after the baby arrives. Too many changes at once can be overwhelming, so giving your child time to adjust well before or after becoming an older sibling can be helpful.
When it comes to the first meeting, you may choose to have your older child come to the hospital or wait until you arrive home. Either way, try to keep your older child’s routine as normal as possible during your absence and in the initial days home. This can be very difficult with a newborn, so if possible enlist the help of family and friends. Some parents also find success in having the older child “buy” the new baby a present and presenting it to them during their first meeting. You can also have the new baby “buy” their older sibling a gift.
If your child seems uninterested initially, don’t fret. The initial meeting is not necessarily an indication of their future relationship. Bonding takes time, so allow some space for their relationship to evolve naturally.
Tips for helping an older child adjust to a new sibling
Depending on your child’s age, you can take additional steps to help them adjust to their new sibling.
Under two years old
- A child in this age group will have limited communication skills and ability to understand these changes. Even though children may struggle to understand what is happening, you should still make efforts to discuss the upcoming change with them.
- Introduce books that talk about siblings and family and/or give your child a doll to practice on.
Two to four years old
- Children this age have been used to having more of your attention for the past few years, so this is a big change for them. Be sure to set aside alone time with your older children to ease this adjustment.
- Providing books and dolls can help them understand the changes that are happening in their world.
- If possible, allow your older child to stay up a little later at night than their younger sibling. You can use this time to read books together, watch television, or cuddle with one another.
- Ask for their assistance with small tasks around the house and praise them for their efforts.
Five years and older
- Older children are usually aware of the changes happening and can benefit from being included as much as possible in new family life.
- Ask for help with small tasks around the house and caring for the baby.
- Try to keep their routine as normal as possible.
- If your child expresses jealousy, point out some of the benefits of being older, like being able to go to the park and eat “real” food.
- Like younger age groups, make an effort to spend one-on-one time with your older child.
As a parent, it can be difficult to see your children struggle with adjustments. Remember that adjustments like having a new sibling take time and your child’s initial reaction to their sibling is not necessarily an indication of their future relationship.
Frequently asked questions (FAQ)
How do I handle my older child’s jealousy of a new sibling?
It can be difficult to see your older child feel jealous toward a new family member. Remember that negative feelings like jealousy are normal when you bring home a new baby. This is a big adjustment for everyone in the family. Consider the following when addressing your child’s jealousy:
- Try to offer your older child lots of compassion and understanding.
- Acknowledge, rather than ignore these feelings. You can say “I see that sometimes you like the new baby and other times you don’t.”
- Offer a solution when you can. For example, “you’re upset that I’m feeding the baby again. Let’s color in a little while when I’m done. Can you get the crayons ready?”
- Make alone time for your older child when you can. You can make this time precious by calling it “mommy and (name of your older child) time.”
Should I punish my older child for acting out?
In general, reinforcing a child’s positive behaviors is more effective than punishing their bad behaviors. When possible, acknowledge times that your older child is being gentle, patient, or helpful with their new sibling. When your child does act out, consider the following approach:
- Start by trying to understand the feelings motivating the behavior. Is your child feeling jealous or craving more attention? This can indicate more of what your child needs from you.
- Next, try to express empathy and understanding for what your child is feeling.
- If your child is demonstrating bad behavior that isn’t dangerous, you can try ignoring it. Attention can be very reinforcing, so ignoring the behavior will show your child that their behavior will not lead to more attention.
- If your child is engaging in bad behavior that could be dangerous or harmful, you will have to intervene. Step in by removing them from the situation and provide a brief explanation of why the behavior is dangerous. For example, “Throwing blocks at the baby can hurt. We’re going to go into another room until you’re ready to stop.”
- Stay firm with your rules. Children can get easily confused by mixed messages, so be sure to remain consistent with how you approach their behavior.
What if my older child regresses?
Regressions to “baby-like” behavior are normal responses to stress when a new sibling arrives. An older child may begin sucking their thumb again, having toilet accidents, or drinking from a bottle. Children may want to mimic the baby in order to get more attention from you. Try to be patient with these regressions and provide your child with lots of love, affection, and understanding. At the same time you can remind them of the benefits of being older and encourage them to share their favorite thing about their current age. You may have to re-teach certain skills, like potty training, but your child will most likely master these skills again rather quickly.
What can I do if my toddler is jealous of breastfeeding?
Older children, especially toddlers, may be jealous of a younger sibling breastfeeding. These feelings can stem from frustration that your attention is focused on the new baby and their normal routine is being disrupted. Jealousy, anger, temper tantrums, and regression during this time are all normal.
- If your toddler is curious about breastfeeding, invite them to ask questions. You can explain that they were also once breast-fed, if that was the case, and that this is how babies eat. Children may feel satisfied knowing that they too shared in this special experience, but now they are bigger and no longer need to rely on mom for milk.
- You can help your toddler cope with breastfeeding by involving them in the process in some way. For example, you can ask for their help setting up a pillow or putting a blanket on the baby. Children will likely feel proud that they are able to help, which can help offset jealousy.
- You can also try to make the experience special for your toddler by inviting them to snuggle with you and their younger sibling while you nurse. You can use this time to read a book or watch a television show together. This can help children feel included, which can help reduce jealousy.
- If your toddler asks to nurse too, you may consider allowing them to breastfeed at the same time as your baby, but this is a personal choice. Once a child’s curiosity is satisfied, they are likely to lose interest and move on.
Remember that there are many adjustments that come with having a new baby in the family. Toddlers are likely to react to breastfeeding in the beginning, but over time will see this as a normal part of the new family routine. For more information on breastfeeding, see the Office on Women’s Health.