Dr Martine Prunty
Adjusting to a new sibling
Updated: Sep 29, 2021
It is to be expected that children, no matter their age, have a reaction to the birth of a sibling. Sometimes it takes parents by surprise as during the mother’s pregnancy the child is often very excited. However, once the new little person arrives, the reality of limited attention and greater expectations placed upon them, can leave children feeling confused and upset. It is not uncommon for children to regress in previously learned behaviours, such as wanting a dummy again and having toileting accidents.
There are many things that can contribute to a difficult adjustment:
• 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.
• Children younger than age 2. Young children likely won't understand yet what it means to have a new sibling. Talk to your child about the new addition to your family. Look at picture books about babies and families.
• Children ages 2 to 4. Children at this age might feel uncomfortable sharing your attention with a newborn. Explain the baby will need lots of attention and encourage your older child's involvement by taking him or her shopping for baby supplies. Read to your older child about babies, brothers and sisters. Give your older child a doll so that he or she can be a caregiver, too. Look at your older child's baby pictures together and tell the story of his or her birth.
• School-age children. Older children might feel jealous of how much attention a new baby gets. Talk to your older child about your newborn's needs. Point out the advantages of being older, such as going to bed later. You might display your older child's artwork in the baby's room or ask your older child to help take care of the baby.
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. Let your child choose the activity, and you follow their lead.
• 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.
• “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.
• 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.
• 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
• 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.
Despite your dedicated attempts to help your child adjust, they may still try to get attention by breaking rules. Try to ignore any behaviour that you consider “annoying”, and only address behaviour that is dangerous or not negotiable for other reasons. Instead, praise your child when they are behaving well.