Helping Your Child Manage the Birth of a Sibling

byKristin S. Swanson, Psy.D.

Welcoming a new baby into your family can be an exciting, joyous time. This new little bundle might be tiny, but brings some HUGE changes to the family unit. Older siblings may respond in a number of ways to this new addition – some might fall seamlessly into the role of the helpful and loving older brother or sister, while others might find it far more challenging. Just as anxiety over the new role of being a parent to 2 (or 3, or more!) likely creeps in for Mom and Dad, anxiety about what it means to be an older sibling, no longer the only child, or even no longer the youngest child, can be overwhelming.

Parents are the center of the young child’s universe and the thought of losing, or even sharing, Mom or Dad to this new little one can trigger a multitude of emotions. As adults, we are well aware that just because a new child enters our family, it does not mean that the amount of love for the older child is depleted. However, young children are not yet developmentally able to think more abstractly, and in their more concrete minds “love for the new baby” might translate into “less love for me.”

Anxiety about new roles in the family may be overt. For example, your child may ask questions such as, “Will you still be my Mom/Dad when the baby comes?” or “Will you still love me?” which can naturally facilitate discussion to quell some of these fears. However, other children may not be able to express these worries as directly and the resultant behavior that they engage in can seem confusing or frustrating. Children who were once able to follow their daily routine with ease may refuse to put on their shoes to leave for school. Those who relished their newfound independence are now demanding your attention and assistance constantly. Masters of the potty are now having bathroom accidents. Your proud big kid now wants to go back to using a bottle, sit in the baby seat, or be cradled and rocked. Even gentle, kind natured kids may be rough or aggressive with the new baby.

So, what determines which children will have an easy adjustment to the new baby, and which will struggle? Part of the picture is the child’s natural temperament. Kids who have historically been “easy” and flexible may have a smoother adjustment, while those who have been more sensitive and experienced more difficulty with transitions may take longer to manage this change.

Another important factor is preparation. Moms and Dads prepare for the new baby’s arrival for 9 months by attending doctor’s appointments and ultrasounds, preparing the nursery, buying necessary items, and pondering over names, to mention a few. This preparation helps parents to reduce anxiety and feel more ready for the day baby comes home. Supporting your child in this period of preparation in age appropriate ways can help him or her feel more ready as well. The following are suggestions of ways to help your older child prepare before baby’s arrival, as well as ways to manage the transition once baby is home:

Before Baby’s Arrival:

  1. Read storybooks about being an older sibling. These books can help put words to the emotions your child might be experiencing, provide concrete information about what it will be like to have baby in the home, as well as suggest ways a big brother or sister can be a good helper.
    • Babies Don’t Eat Pizza, by Dianne Danzig
    • I’m a Big Sister/I’m a Big Brother, By Joanna Cole
    • Julius, Baby of the World, By Kevin Henkes
    • Will There Be a Lap for Me? By Dorothy Corey
  2. Provide plenty of time to talk with your child about the feelings he or she may be experiencing. This may include modeling what types of feelings may be typical or you suspect your child might be experiencing if they do not yet have the words to express it (ex. “I remember when my little sister was born, part of me was excited, but part of me worried that I wouldn’t have as much time with my mommy.”) Acknowledge and accept any and all feelings your child may be experiencing, whether they are positive or negative. This will help your child to feel heard and supported. While it is important to provide plenty of time and space to talk about the new baby with your child, do not force or pressure him or her to do so. What is most important is to follow your child’s lead.
  3. Designate “baby time.” Your child may exhibit regressed behavior, such as wanting to use a bottle or pacifier, using “baby talk,” or a desire to be rocked or held like a baby. If your child engages in these behaviors frequently throughout the day, set aside a few minutes each day for “baby time,” where your child can pretend to be a baby and can be nurtured by you. Acknowledge with your child his or her wish to be a baby again and emphasize how much you loved your child as a baby as well as how much you love him or her now, as a big kid. If your child continues to engage in the regressed behavior during the day, remind him or her to wait until “baby time.”
  4. Help your child begin to experience the baby as a person, not just an abstract idea. This can be especially challenging with the concrete thinking young child, but letting your child feel the baby’s kicks or listen to the heartbeat at a doctor’s visit may help it all seem a bit more “real.”
  5. Talk with your child about what to expect. New babies spend the majority of their time eating, sleeping, and crying. Help your child to understand that babies cry so frequently because they do not yet have words to let their Moms and Dads know what they need like big kids can.
  6. Provide opportunities to interact with other babies. Exposing your child to other infants, such as friends, or cousins, can help your child to see firsthand what to expect. This will also provide some practice for your child on how to interact with a new baby.
  7. Talk about what it was like to be pregnant with your older child. Show your big kid pictures of mommy’s belly and pictures of him or her as a brand new baby. Talk about the excitement and anticipation surrounding his or her birth.
  8. Provide ample time for environmental changes. If your older child will be moving to a new room or moving out of his or her crib into a bed, make these changes well before the new baby comes home to prevent your child from feeling displaced.
  9. Ask for advice. Involve your child in the process of choosing items for the new baby. Ask your child’s preferences for toys, blankets, and books. If your child would like, he or she can even choose one of their own infant toys to pass on to the new baby.
  10. Prepare child for hospital plan. Familiarize your child with the plan for when Mom and Dad go to the hospital (ex. Grandma and Grandpa will come to the house and stay with you overnight. The next day they will bring you to the hospital to visit Mom, Dad, and your new baby brother).
  11. Create a storybook. Create a narrative of what will happen before baby is born, when Mom and Dad go to the hospital, and when baby arrives home. This story can be revisited frequently and this repetition of concrete information can ease anxiety.

Once Baby Arrives:

  1. Provide a gift from baby to big brother or sister. When your child comes to visit you and the new baby at the hospital, provide a small gift from baby brother or sister to your big kid. This can help foster positive feelings toward the new baby right from the start.
  2. Give helping jobs. Allow your child to help with the baby in any way possible. For example, ask your child to bring toys to the baby, bring diapers to Mom or Dad, or even help during bath time.
  3. Encourage nurturing interactions. Foster positive interactions between your older child and the new baby by encouraging your child to pat the baby’s back when crying, speaking softly and quietly to baby, giving a kiss, or holding the baby (with help). Be sure to notice with your older child the way your infant calms when soothed, looks, and smiles at him or her.
  4. Special Mom and Dad time. Plan time to spend alone with your child where he or she can be the sole focus.
  5. Emphasize independence. Point out to your child all of the things that he or she can do that they were unable to as a baby. For example, big kids can run and play with friends, eat their favorite foods, joke with Mom and Dad, and do many things all by themselves. Praise and celebrate all of these skills that your big kid possesses.

If symptoms of anxiety, regression, or aggression persist and become extremely distressing or impairing, consult with a mental health professional to determine if additional support is recommended to assist your family in managing this transition.