Small Person, Big Changes: Helping Older Siblings Cope with the New Baby

Introducing a new baby sibling can be a challenge for your older child or children. Positive Parenting expert Kelly Bartlett shares strategies for helping older siblings cope with the new baby to make the transition a smooth one.

Encouraging children through a new sibling transition

Adding a new baby sibling to the family is an exciting time for families. Children especially feel that eagerness as they hold their new baby brother or sister for the first time; they finally get to see who has been inside of mom’s growing belly all these months!

Their initial enthusiasm may fade, though, as the weeks go on and the reality of a baby’s needs sets in.

Most parents see changes in behavior in their older children sometime during the first year after a new baby sibling is born. Parents may see a once-agreeable child acting out, becoming defiant, or beginning to show behavior struggles at school.

How Can a New Sibling Affect a Child’s Development?

A child’s natural growth compounded with the stress of adjusting to a new family member can be overwhelming. It can cause her to think differently about herself and to behave differently as she tries to find her place in the family.

When you’re introducing a new baby, an older child’s place in the family has changed, and she has difficulty understanding that it’s not a replacement, but simply a re-adjustment. Like everything in child development, this transition takes time.

According to Dr. Jane Nelsen, parent educator and author of Positive Discipline, what kids need most when helping older siblings cope with the new baby is a sense of significance and belonging, and this need is often most persistent after the birth of a new sibling.

Helping Older Siblings Cope with the New Baby Begins with Self Confidence

Nelsen says, “Significance and belonging are what all children and adults strive for; we want to know that we matter and that we have an important place in the world.”

To a child, that ‘world’ is his family, and the arrival of a new sibling can disrupt any sense of security that he had in it. When he no longer feels that he belongs, those feelings are inherently reflected in his behavior.

Dr. Nelsen says, “A misbehaving child is a discouraged child.” Misbehavior is the result of a child’s subconscious belief about himself that he is unloved or unimportant.

He may act out to try to reconfirm his parents’ love, or try to reestablish his own sense of significance. “It is important for parents to realize that a child’s difficult behavior is the result of feeling discouraged about his place in the family. Rather than being punished, that child needs to be encouraged,” says Nelsen.

Gentle Parenting Strategies for Introducing a Newborn with Siblings

When kids begin to act out after a new baby comes home, what is most likely happening is that they are mistakenly thinking that they must regain Mom and Dad’s attention to secure their place in the family. The message coded in their behavior is, “Notice me! Involve me usefully!”

It’s not uncommon for your older child to start saying, “Look at this!” or “Look at me!” more often when a new sibling comes into his or her life.

Parents can give even very young children jobs to help out; opportunities to be noticed and become involved.

There are many ways to offer encouragement when helping older siblings cope with the new baby.

Offer plenty of verbal encouragement

The most recognizable form of encouragement is the use of verbal statements like, “Thank you for helping me make dinner. I really appreciate it!” or, “Wow, you sure worked hard on that LEGO tower. That was a lot of work,” or, “You must feel so proud of yourself right now!”

Encouraging words like these are more effective than statements of blanket praise like, “You’re such a good sister,” as they focus on the child’s efforts and help her develop an internal sense of pride.

Offer emotional encouragement when introducing a new baby sibling

A less obvious, yet vital kind of encouragement is the validation of feelings. Anytime a parent validates a child’s feelings—whether those feelings are positive or negative—they are telling that child, “It’s OK to feel that way; it’s normal,” and children need to hear this.

It lets them know that they’re unconditionally accepted in the family: exactly what a newly older sibling needs. Parents can start helping older siblings cope with the new baby by making them feel secure by allowing, articulating, and accepting all of their feelings—pleasant or not.


Gentle Parenting: Introducing A New Baby

They can help set the table, wash the windows, prepare food, shop at the store, get themselves dressed, take charge of their routines, help themselves to their own snacks, pour their own drinks, wipe the table, and many other age-appropriate tasks. These are the kinds of activities that give kids confidence and help them feel like valued, contributing members of the family.

Books to prepare kids for a new sibling

Help your toddler or older child develop a positive outlook and embrace the changes by reading about becoming a big brother or big sister:

Give your child one-on-one encouragement

When a new baby sibling comes home, give your child a gift: the gift of time. The best gift for an older sibling is simply a parent’s regular focus connecting with them during this difficult transition (and beyond).

After the birth of a new sibling is a perfect time to start scheduling regular “special time” together. Let the child lead the play for 15-20 minutes every day. It is a daily opportunity to ensure some valuable one-on-one time with older children, and kids look forward to this regular part of the day with each parent. It communicates to a child, “I’m here for you. You are important.”

When children become new older siblings, parents can help kids feel secure by understanding and responding to the motivation behind their behavior—that instinctive pursuit of significance and belonging—more so than the behavior itself.

Children need to be encouraged to realize their place in the family.  They are significant and they do belong, and they need to know that.

Even the youngest children recognize babies and are immediately drawn to their captivating smiles. Some children respond well to role-play with dolls before baby’s arrival or in the early days. Here are some other ways to gently introduce a new sibling.

Create an on-limits room for your older child

At first, the biggest adjustment is letting go of the lead role in caring for your first child. Since physical rest is necessary, the best thing to do is create a hands-on play space for your first child. Everything in the room should be ‘on-limits’ so that there is no need to get up to retrieve a curious or adventurous toddler.

In order to make nursing easier, keep an entertaining basket of quiet toys handy. By rotating the toys regularly they’ll continue to delight and engage your child.

Keep your older child’s routine in place

As best you can, keep your child’s routine in place. Especially when it comes to nap and bed time. If you have a bedtime routine of bath, reading together, and tuck-in, make sure one parent can be in charge of the baby while the other keeps this ritual with the older child.

After nursing becomes routine with the new baby, invite the older sibling onto the couch and read stories together. When this becomes a habit, your first child will look forward to the activity each day.

Babywearing can be a huge help

Babywearing in the early days of introducing a new baby sibling can be useful when chasing after a toddler. Having your hands while baby is in a sling or wrap free makes it possible to play, feed, and clean up while baby enjoys a relaxing nap or bonding time with you.

Kids also love babywearing. Fashion a sling out of a receiving blanket or look for a kid-sized carrier for dolls or stuffed animals.

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  1. Leanne Strong says:

    Here is another thing to think about. No matter how hard you try to help your child prepare for or adjust to a new sibling, he or she may still have some feelings about this. Your child may say things like, “my family is my mom, my dad, and me,” or, “when I grow up, I’m only having one kid.” If your child says things like this, try to avoid sounding hurt, or saying, “what about Trevor,” or, “what if your partner wants two kids?” Instead, try thinking about how YOU would feel if you had your parents’/guardians’ full attention for a period of time, and then along came a (sibling, cousin, friend, foster sibling, pet, etc.). How would you feel if everything now had to revolve around your new family or household member, and their nap time, feedings, diaper changes, homework, activities, etc. How would you feel if all family or household outings, vacations, or other household activities now had to be something this child was able to do, and would be interested in, even if you felt like you had outgrown many of them. Imagine if you were now asked to go to certain areas of the home or property to play with/use certain ‘big kid’ items (or weren’t allowed to have those items on the premises at all), because they might harm the new family or household member.

    Even if your older child doesn’t seem to mind their new family or household member at first, issues may arise if the new family or household member starts trying to put their hands on your child’s toys, following your child around, or other things. Imagine if your kids tried to put their hands on your belongings, and your partner gave you a talking to about sharing your belongings with your children, but didn’t say anything to them about asking you first, before touching or playing with your stuff.