Helping Your Older Child (or Children) Adjust
What do I need to know about adding a new baby into our family?
Sibling rivalry usually starts right after, (or even before) the arrival of the second child. The older child often becomes aggressive, “acts out” or even regresses. Regression means acting more like a baby—for example, by wanting a bottle, or peeing in their pants. It’s important to prepare your older child when you know you are expecting a new baby. Kids need to know what to expect, and they need time to adjust. After your baby arrives, there are many things you can do to make the adjustment easier.
Having a new baby in the family may be one of the tougher things your older child has to deal with. However, it may eventually be one of the greatest gifts you can give them.
How can I prepare my child ahead of time for their new baby sibling?
Here are some things you should do to help prepare your older child:
- Tell your child about your pregnancy when you tell your friends. Your child needs to hear about it from you, not from someone else.
- If you plan to move your child to a new bed and/or bedroom, do so well before the baby arrives, so your older child doesn’t feel displaced by the baby. This also goes for any other major changes, like weaning, toilet training, and starting preschool or child care.
- Check with your hospital about sibling preparation classes and hospital tours.
- Bring your child to prenatal visits so they can meet your birth attendant.
- Give them a realistic idea of what to expect when the baby first arrives. You will be tired, and the baby will take lots of your time. The baby will not be able to do much at first, except eat, sleep, poop, pee and cry. The baby will not be a playmate.
- Visit friends with a new baby, if possible.
- Read books about pregnancy, birth, newborns, and baby siblings with your child (see below for some suggestions). Give them a chance to ask questions, voice concerns, and vent feelings inspired by the books.
- Look at pictures/video of your older child’s birth and babyhood. Tell them about their birth and what they were like as a baby. Tell them how excited you were when they were born, and how everyone wanted to see them and hold them.
- Have your child practice holding a doll and supporting the head. Teach them how to touch and hold a baby very gently.
- Let them participate in preparations in any way possible. Give them choices, such as choosing the baby’s coming home outfit from two acceptable options.
- Should your child be present for the baby’s birth? Many families have found this to be a very positive experience, but it is not necessarily right for every family. If you do decide to have your child at the birth, make sure you have an adult caregiver whose only job is to be there for the child. Prepare your child thoroughly, by watching videos of births with them, bringing them to midwife or OB appointments, and talking with them about what it may be like. It may be nice to give them a special, age-appropriate job, such as cutting the umbilical cord or putting on the hat.
- Research indicates that a child’s personality has the most effect on how they react to a new baby.
- Children with the closest relationships with their mothers show the most upset after the baby is born.
- Children with a close relationship with their father seem to adjust better.
- Your child’s developmental stage may affect how well they can share your attention. Often two-year-olds have lots of trouble getting used to a new baby, because their needs for time and closeness from their parents are still great.
- Stress on the family can make your older child’s adjustment harder.
- See Sibling Rivalry on YourChild for more on causes.
To get a sense of how your older child might feel about the addition of the new baby, imagine this:
Imagine that your partner puts an arm around you and says, "Honey, I love you so much, and you're so wonderful that I've decided to have another wife (or husband or partner) just like you." When the new wife (or husband or partner) finally arrives, you see that (s)he's very young and kind of cute. When the three of you are out together, people say hello to you politely, but exclaim ecstatically over the newcomer. "Isn't (s)he adorable! Hello sweetheart... You are precious!" Then they turn to you and ask, "How do you like the new wife (or husband or partner)?"
How can I help my child adjust to the new baby once it’s here?
- Set aside special time for your older child. Each parent should spend some one-on-one with the older child every day. It’s amazing how much even just 10 minutes of uninterrupted one-on-one time can mean to your child (and help their behavior!). Let your child choose the activity, and you follow their lead.
- Listen—really listen—to how your child feels about the baby and the changes in your family. If they express negative feelings, acknowledge them. Help your child put their feelings into words. Never deny or discount your child’s feelings.
- Make sure it is very clear that absolutely no hurting is allowed. Give your child other ways to express bad or angry feelings they may have toward the baby. For example, they could draw an angry picture of the baby, or act out their wishes with dolls, or roar like a lion.
- “Baby” your child, if that’s what they seem to crave. This may help stave off regression in areas that are less acceptable to you. There is a tendency to suddenly expect your child to become more independent when you have a new baby. If you expect less independence, you are more likely to get more!
- Have the new baby and older child exchange gifts.
- Have some special “big brother” or “big sister” gifts to give your child as friends and relatives start showing up with baby gifts, so your older child won’t feel left out.
- Remind visitors to pay attention to your older child, and not just the baby.
- Make sure the older child has some special, private space, and things of their own that they don’t have to share with the baby.
- Give them special jobs that they can do to help the family and help with the baby’s care (but don’t overdo it—take your cue from your child on this).
- Let them participate in the baby’s care—baths, dressing, pushing the stroller, etc.
- Point out the benefits of being an older child, like choosing what to eat, being able to go the park and play, and having friends.
- Helping children with a new baby, from Mr. Rogers. Also in Spanish.
- A good overview of preparing your child for a new sibling, including pregnancy, hospital sibling classes, the birth, and the adjustment at home. Also available in Spanish.
- Just for school-aged kids: Things to expect when your mom is pregnant (also in Spanish), and Welcoming a new baby into the family (also in Spanish).
Are there any good books for parents on adding a new sibling into the family?
Either of these books would be helpful to read while you are expecting your second (or third) child. Both address many issues, including parents’ feelings about a second pregnancy; helping your firstborn adjust; understanding rivalry issues; the father's role; setting up a family birth plan; and managing two or more kids while sustaining your marriage.
- From One Child to Two: What to Expect, How to Cope, and How to Enjoy Your Growing Family, by Judy Dunn.
- And Baby Makes Four : Welcoming a Second Child into the Family, by Hilory Wagner
What books can I read to my child to help with adjusting to the new baby?
There are lots of great children’s books about pregnancy, birth, adoption, and new baby siblings. Reading books with your child will help them prepare for and understand what is happening in your family. Books about feelings will help your child know that all their mixed-up feelings are normal and okay. Books can spark conversations between you and your child about their worries, questions, and feelings about the new baby.
- We Have a Baby, by Cathryn Falwel.
Simple text and illustrations. What can you do with a new baby?
- The New Baby by Fred Rogers.
For toddlers and preschoolers. Nice photos of families working together and sharing.
- Our New Baby, by Wendy Cheyette Lewison.
Great photos and simple text for very young children.
- How A Baby Grows, by Nola Buck.
- My Baby Brother Has Ten Tiny Toes, by Laura Leuck.
- 101 Things to do with a Baby, by Jan Ormerod.
- Spot's Baby Sister, by Eric Hill.
- Sisters, by Debbie Bailey & Susan Huszar.
- Baby Born, by Anastasia Suen.
- Julius, the Baby of the World, by Kevin Henkes.
Lilly thinks all the attention given to her baby brother Julius is “disgusting!” but then she finds inside herself a fierce love and protectiveness.
- A Baby for Max, by Kathryn Lasky and Maxwell Knight.
A small boy's view of his new baby sister--as told in his own words, with black and white photos.
- Will there be a lap for me? by Dorothy Corey.
When a boy’s mother is pregnant, her lap gets smaller and smaller. After the baby is born, she is very busy, but she makes some special time for her older son.
- When the New Baby Comes, I’m Moving Out, and Nobody Asked Me if I Wanted a Baby Sister, by Martha Alexander
Oliver expresses his feelings about having a baby sister.
- Alligator Baby, by Robert Munsch.
A silly spoof, where the older sister is the hero!
- Aren't You Lucky! by Catherine & Laurence Anholt.
The big sister doesn’t feel very lucky to have this new baby around.
- Big Brother, Little Brother, by Penny Dale.
Brothers can make each other feel better.
- A New Baby at Koko Bear's House, by Vicky Lansky.
Includes tips for parents at the bottom of each page.
- Oonga Boonga, by Carol Thompson.
The big brother is the only one who can calm the baby.
- A Place for Ben, by Jeanne Titherington.
Ben’s baby brother moves into his room.
- Waiting for Baby and Talk, Baby! by Harriet Ziefert.
Fun books—kids like them.
- How You Were Born, I’m a Big Brother and I’m a Big Sister, by Joanna Cole
- Arthur's Baby, by Marc Brown.
- The New Baby, by Mercer Mayer
Preschool though school-age:
- Being Born, by Sheila Kitzinger and Lennart Nilsson
Simple text and color photos explain conception through birth.
- Before You Were Born: the Inside Story and Baby Science, by Ann Douglas.
Fun science books about pregnancy and what babies are like to help prepare the big sibling.
- Mommy’s in the Hospital Having a Baby, by Maxine Rosenberg.
From the child’s point of view, tells what to expect when mom goes into the hospital to give birth to a new baby sibling.
- Darcy and Gran Don’t Like Babies, by Jane Cutler.
Darcy’s grandma helps her with her complex feelings toward the new baby.
- A Baby Sister for Frances, by Russell & Lillian Hoban.
- Welcoming Babies, by Margy Burns Knight.
Describes different cultures’ welcoming traditions.
- The New Baby at Your House, by Joanna Cole.
Ages 3-6. Great photos and simple discussion of what it’s like to have a new baby, and older children’s feelings about the baby.
- Hello Baby! by Lizzy Rockwell.
Ages 4-8. An older brother explains the baby’s prenatal development and birth in simple, straightforward terms.
- My New Baby and Me: A First Year Record Book for Big Brothers and Sisters, by Dian Smith.
- Arthur's Baby, by Marc Brown.
- Pinky and Rex and the New Baby, by James Howe.
For older school-aged kids. Rex’s family adopts a new baby, and she tries to be a perfect big sister, while worrying that her parents will forget about her.
- Arthur’s Baby
- Sesame Street: A New Baby in my House
Written and compiled by Kyla Boyse, R.N. Reviewed by faculty and staff at the University of Michigan
Updated October 2009