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  • Writer's pictureSam Gardner

Helping Older Siblings Adjust to a New Baby

What’s normal versus atypical? How can parents help with the transition? Will things ever get better?

A swaddled baby is asleep next to a smiling toddler.

Bringing home a new baby is a major life event for parents as well as the children in a family. It is normal for this joyful time to be accompanied by stress, including older children struggling to adjust to becoming siblings. Whether they are toddlers, elementary schoolers, preteens, or adolescents, here are some tips for supporting your kids as your family grows.


 

So you're adding someone new to the family, and you're worried about helping older siblings adjust to a new baby...


You've come to the right place. This is Happypillar's guide to the dynamics of introducing a new baby to older siblings. Our Clinical Director, Chloe Picot-Jacobs, LCSW, explores it all below. Keep reading!

What's Typical?

1. Common Sibling Responses to a New Baby

While some children are born with a flexible, relaxed temperament, others are more sensitive to change and frequently become over-stimulated. In either case, your child may surprise you with their response to a new sibling. A child that likes to play alone may be excited to interact with the baby, while your typically easygoing child may suddenly seem quick to anger. Whatever you see, remember that it is likely temporary. An additional family member is a huge change! It is perfectly normal for your child to have a strong reaction to it. Here are some responses young children often have as they transition to their new role as big brother or big sister:

  • Tantrums

  • Regressive behavior (e.g. baby talk when they used to speak clearly)

  • Frustration

  • Disappointment

  • Mood swings

  • Excitement

  • Eagerness to help with the baby

  • Verbal aggression

  • Physical aggression

  • Rejecting/ignoring family members, including the baby

  • Noncompliance/arguing

  • Testing established boundaries and rules


2. Will My Kids EVER Get Along?

The short answer is, yes, your kids will eventually get along. Some of the time. Then they may argue, or need time away from each other. And then they will get along again! A child that is particularly quick to bounce back in challenging situations may get used to a new baby within a few months. After about a year, most older siblings adjust to having a baby in the home.


Parents often envision their children having an instant, close relationship, and some families experience this! Other kids need time to get used to each other. The sibling bond is a special one that for many becomes a lifelong friendship, but each sibling relationship is just as unique as the individual children are. Factors like shared interests, personality traits, age gaps, and play styles can impact how much children enjoy spending time together. Remember that kindness and respect are not (and should not be) contingent on kids being each other's favorite person. Kids can cooperate and treat each other appropriately whether they are going through a time of closeness in their relationship or not.


Tips and Tools


1. Accept Their Feelings

Kids have a range of emotions related to new babies, and you might be surprised or even concerned by some of them. Depending on older siblings’ ages, you might hear them express feelings of excitement, fear, jealousy, and joy. Younger children may not describe their emotions in words, but you might see hints of how they feel in their behavior or play themes. Regressive behavior, like a toddler who normally walks asking to be carried, might be your child’s way of communicating that they want to feel special and cared for. Remind your child that even when changes happen, like a new baby coming home, your love for them stays just as strong. Kids may also express big feelings to make sure they are loved unconditionally. When they express something like anger, make space for that feeling rather than trying to convince them to feel a different emotion. As much as we’d prefer siblings to be happy with each other all the time, we can’t force them to feel that way! You're helping older siblings adjust to a new baby, and remember that word: adjust. It's a process, and it might take time.



Example:


Older sibling: I’m mad at the baby! I wish they didn’t need so much attention.


Parent: I understand why you might feel upset. It’s a parent’s job to give their babies a lot of attention! At first, it’s a big change for the whole family, but I promise it won’t always be this way. The older the baby gets, the more they will be able to do, just like you! Let’s think of fun things you can do while we’re feeding the baby.


3. Offer One-on-One Time

A few minutes per day of one-on-one time with your older child is the best prevention for challenging behavior during the transition into life with a new baby at home. Happypillar is a free, low-stress way to get quality time with kids ages 2-7, without needing to leave the house. You can download it here. For older kids, set aside a few minutes to talk about their interests or complete a craft a little bit at a time.


Example:


Older sibling: Today has been so boring! I’m tired of playing by myself.


Parent: It’s been a long day. Let’s play just the two of us for five minutes. After that, you can play on your own, or help me

make dinner.


3. Answer Their Questions Honestly


Your older kids may have questions about the baby, and it’s okay to answer honestly. Keep in mind that too much detail can be overwhelming for kids. Stick with need-to-know information. If you’re not sure how to respond, that’s okay, too! Tell your child you’re going to think about the best way to answer, and let them know when you plan to circle back.


Example:


Older sibling: The baby cries all the time! When will it get better?


Parent: It is tough to hear babies cry! I’m going to think about your question. At bedtime tonight, I’ll give you the best answer I can.


4. Highlight Your Older Children’s Successes as Siblings


A young child hugs a woman as they both smile

Celebrating what children are doing well not only makes them feel like their efforts are being noticed, but also helps them better understand your expectations for them as new siblings. Highlight any of their positive behavior during the transition of bringing a new baby home. Whenever possible, look for opportunities to compliment how they treat the new baby and help out as a family member.


Example:


If your older child has been demonstrating regressive behavior since the baby’s arrival, like crawling instead of walking


Parent: I love seeing you walk on your two feet! The baby is going to learn so much from you!


5. Let Unwanted Behaviors Go When You Can

You might hear some big feelings come out in the form of harsh language like “I hate the baby!” or “I don’t want to play with you ever again!” It can be tempting to correct your kids, argue, or even give a consequence when you hear statements like this. However, focusing on rude language can actually send the opposite message…that if they say something outrageous enough, they’ll get that undivided attention they’ve been missing! Instead, keep your cool and focus on what they are doing well. Remember that your child is trying to express a difficult, overwhelming emotion, and aggression (verbal and physical) is one way to make sure you’re really listening! When they pull you into an argument, that’s valuable one-on-one attention. Of course, safety is always the priority. If a behavior goes beyond rudeness or attention seeking and becomes unsafe for your children, yourself, or pets, it is important to step in.


6. Keep Rules and Routines the Same



A lot of parents give their older children extra flexibility when a new baby comes home, like later bedtimes or more screen time, as a way to make the transition period more fun. Bending the rules on occasion, like having breakfast for dinner or staying up past bedtime for a special event, is absolutely normal. At the same time, consistency is critical to regulating kids’ minds and bodies. While parents are well intentioned when they bend the rules for older kids, it may make things harder on them. Kids’ brains are wired to look for patterns, so as predictability and consistency decrease, challenging behaviors and emotional dysregulation tend to increase. With a new baby at home, it is impossible to keep everything exactly like it was before, so pick a few house rules and daily routines, and prioritize those.


Example:


Parent: Since the baby is home with us now, bed time might start a little later, but we will always take the time to brush our teeth and read one book together.

7. Make Older Kids Feel Included


The hardest part about having a new sibling for older kids is often the major shift in their family role. They may feel lonely, ignored, or unsure how to help. When possible, invite your child to join you in caring for the baby. Even if all they can do is stand nearby and watch, they are likely to feel more involved. If you have a toddler, give them a baby doll or stuffed animal they can diaper, dress, and feed.


A woman holds a baby to her chest as a young child sits nearby.

Example:


Parent: I’m going to feed the baby. If you’d like, you can bring your baby doll and give them a bottle next to me.




8. Let Sibling Bonding Happen Naturally


Two young children jump on a bed together while holding hands

Some kids are thrilled when a new baby comes home. Others keep to themselves, or purposefully avoid new siblings! Gentle encouragement is okay, but too much pushing from parents and older siblings are likely to resist more and more. It may take time, but your kids will eventually engage with each other!


Example:


Parent: Would you like to say good morning to the baby?


Older sibling: No!

Parent: No problem, let me know if you change your mind.



A new sibling is a big adjustment for everyone in the family. Be patient with yourself, and your older children, as much as you can, especially in the first few months. Just like any relationship, siblings may go through phases. They may spend months playing well together, then go through a time of arguments and fighting, and then be inseparable again. Modeling kindness, respect, and cooperation for your kids will set a foundation for healthy sibling relationships, even if there are some bumps along the way!



Two children lie on the grass laughing, side by side.

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