It’s no walk in the park to adjust to the presence of a new (often crying) human creature in the house...remember what a shock it was for you when your first child came along? Now that you’re expecting baby number two, the territory will probably feel familiar, but with one significant difference: This time around you don’t just have to manage your own reaction to the change, but that of an older child as well—and depending on the age of the kid in question, their emotional processing skills might still be pretty, um, unpredictable. Fortunately, a little prep work goes a long way toward smoothing out any potential kinks in the new sibling dynamic. We spoke with Dr. Bethany Cook, clinical psychologist and author of For What It’s Worth: A Perspective on How to Thrive and Survive Parenting Ages 0-2, to get some actionable advice on how to prepare a child for a new sibling, and here’s what she had to say.
How can I help my kid adjust to a new member of the family?
A new baby brings a lot of joy, to be sure, but it’s also a major change that comes with an adjustment period of equal proportion—especially when you have another kid at home. Fear not, friends: We got the full scoop on how best to help children of different ages handle the changes that lie ahead so you can keep your household running smoothly.
Children younger than age 2
For children who are younger than two years old, there’s not too much you can do to help prepare them for what’s to come outside of what you likely already do to help their developing language and social skills. Things like seeking out opportunities for peer interactions (i.e., playground visits) so your little one can practice sharing and being gentle and speaking frequently to your child about the baby are two easy ways to set your older child up for success. Tots will also benefit from simple board books that feature newborn babies and introduce the idea of a larger family unit.
Children ages 2 to 4
Books are an excellent way to help children wrap their heads around the idea of having a new sibling and what daily life will look like once the baby comes, especially for kids ages 2 to 4, says Dr. Cook. For little kids, there are plenty of simple and sweet picture books about new siblings so a new sibling library can cover all the bases. Look for upbeat options that will get your child excited about the new addition, as well as ones that tackle the negative feelings and ambivalence that might arise. Bonus: Reading time, no matter the material, is an opportunity to share some snuggly one-on-one time with your child, which will provide reassurance in and of itself.
To help your child gain an understanding of how your heart can fully love two people, Dr. Cook suggests that parents try out a simple and very sweet art project with their little kid. “Get a piece of paper and draw a heart on it. Then ask your child to color it red and tell them this is the love you have for them. Then give them the blue crayon and have them color on top of the red sharing that this is also how much you love their sibling. Once completed, explain how your love for them does not change. Their sibling merely adds more color to your heart and makes it a beautiful purple.” Adorable, right?
Finally, consider a sibling gift exchange as a way to start the new relationship on the right foot. Have your child pick out a gift to give the new baby, and be sure you also get a gift from the baby to the older child (to help butter up the latter). There’s a good chance one or both of these gifts will become meaningful items for both your children as they get older and their bond begins to grow.
Compared to their younger counterparts, grade school kids are likely to be more receptive to good old conversation. Dr. Cook suggests parents share their own experiences with having siblings. Here are some questions parents can ask themselves: “Did you have any siblings? How was it for you? What did your parents do to help you? Did it work?” Another tack to take is to introduce your kid to some famous siblings who accomplished great things as a team; then follow up with a conversation about what Dr. Cook calls “team family,” the gist of which is that “new family members may not be MVPs yet (as they are still learning life skills) but, with support and guidance, the entire team becomes successful, both the group and its individual components.” (Oh hey, Williams sisters.)
When preparing an older child for a new arrival, you needn’t shy away from the unvarnished truth: Dr. Cook advises parents to speak honestly with their grade school kids—acknowledge the changes that will occur, the temporary disruption and the fact that even you don’t know exactly what’s going to happen (i.e., whether your bundle of joy will sleep through the night or scream around the clock from colic). Don’t let the heart-to-hearts become overkill, though; when you’ve talked it out a little, inject some fun into the preparations by asking for your big kids help with decorating the baby’s room—a hands-on project that “will help them feel empowered in making decisions that impact their living space and life.”
How can I teach my child to be gentle with the baby?
So, you’ve seen your toddler get rough with a teddy bear one too many times and now you’re wondering what might befall your newborn. Well, depending on the age of your older child, close supervision is going to be required for a little while. That said, our expert does have an effective strategy to give energetic older kids a head start on learning how to use a ginger touch with the baby. Dr. Cook recommends introducing your young child to the concept of nurturing and gentleness with a gift that requires special care to keep safe. No, that doesn’t mean you need to give your kid a pet to take care of—a small plant or toy that won’t stand up well to rough play will do the trick. Pair this one with a verbal reminder that “the baby will be fun to play with, but you will have to be gentle like you have been with your special toy.” The guided play should spare you some nail-biting initial interactions between siblings.
What should I do if my older child starts acting out?
First and foremost, Dr. Cook says parents must remember that acting out is simply a natural expression of feelings from the older child. (So, don’t freak out.) “Bear in mind that there are also unconscious feelings happening beneath the surface of your older child. A common fear is the concern and worry that they will be ‘replaced’.” So how do you help your child with their fears? The psychologist says the best thing you can do is to let your child know you love them every day and, above all, be sure to validate their feelings. Avoid lashing out in frustration (i.e., don’t tell your older child she’s acting like a baby) and if it happens, apologize and get back on the compassion track promptly. Finally, try to carve out some special time with your child. Chances are they need a break from that feeling that every aspect of life revolves around the baby—so if you can, have a standing date with your child in which just the two of you get out and do something fun together.
How will my child react to breastfeeding?
Does anyone (parent, child, that weird lady in the park who you scandalized) know how they will react to breastfeeding? That said, breastfeeding may stir some big feelings in your firstborn and trigger a desire to be the baby again. This phenomenon is pretty easy to understand considering how much closeness and sheer time breastfeeding babies receive from their mothers. Indeed, per Dr. Cook, it’s very common for older children to regress a bit when they see mom breastfeeding—but, she adds, there’s no need for that to inhibit you from being open about what is ultimately a very natural and normal part of life. Her advice? Remind your child—in a positive way—why they no longer need to breastfeed (i.e., “you can chew all kinds of yummy food, but babies have to eat the same boring thing all day”). In other words, “make it less about saying ‘no’ to breastfeeding and [more about] saying ‘yes’ to all the other options” available to your older child.
What if I’m having multiples?
The extra demand of bringing home more than one baby is significant—a fact that will indeed affect your older child as well. Still, when it comes to helping your child adjust to the change, all the above advice applies. The only adjustment to the game plan is that having multiples makes it even more important that you work out a way to spend time alone with your older child (cruel irony), while lavishing said child with love throughout the day, of course.
The Dos and Don’ts of Helping a Child Adjust to a New Sibling
Struggling to absorb all that information? We get it. Here’s a breakdown of best (and worst) practices straight from the expert that you can consult whenever you need.
- Don’t ever dismiss your child’s feelings or lived experience.
- Do validate what your kid is going through. (Think: “Mommy can’t play with you right now because she’s feeding the baby and that makes you sad. I get it. When I’m done in 10 minutes, then I will come play with you.”)
- Do periodically check in with them about how they’re feeling and adjusting to the new baby in the house.
- Don’t ever compare the children to each other (i.e., “Caleb is such a quiet baby, but you were so loud”).
- Do carve out special one-on-one time with the older sibling—even just ten minutes of bonding time a day can have a big impact.
- Don’t lash out when your child acts out; but no one’s perfect, so see below.
- Do apologize if you blow your lid on the big sibling; then try again to approach them with compassion.