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Family Dynamics

How to Help Your Older Child Before the Baby Arrives

How to help your older children when a new baby is on the way.

Key points

  • Research suggests that older siblings often struggle with the arrival of a new baby.
  • Frequently talk about the new baby as a person with their own feelings, thoughts, and desires before the baby is born. 
  • Work on your relationship with your older child and set up playdates for them to work on their social skills.
Jessica Rockowitz/Unsplash
Source: Jessica Rockowitz/Unsplash

When my second child was born, my first child was almost two-and-a-half years old. Like nearly all second-time parents, I was worried about the transition to having more than one child and did extensive research to find out the best way to help my older child through the transition.

Most information that I found online seemed to focus on what I thought were fairly superficial tips that applied only to the newborn period (such as pretending like the newborn baby got a present for the older child and putting the baby in the bassinet when the older child first comes into the hospital room).

While these were sensible ideas that I could see helping with the older sibling’s initial reaction, I felt like they didn’t really address the serious emotional repercussions of going from getting 100 percent of your parents’ attention to 50 percent or setting the foundation to form a lifelong positive sibling relationship. Because I knew the importance of toddlers knowing what to expect, I knew to talk about the baby frequently, and my daughter seemed to grasp the concept as much as a toddler could.

However, even with a Ph.D. in child psychology, I was surprised by her reaction following her brother's birth. I created this series of posts to share research-based information on how to support your older child before and after the baby arrives and how to help your adjustment as a parent.

Research suggests that older siblings often struggle with the arrival of a new baby. Specifically, all of the following are common among older siblings:

There is some evidence that this is particularly true for siblings closer in age. Yet, you can rest assured that the age gap will likely play a minor role in determining the long-term quality of the sibling relationship. In addition, some research finds that smaller age gaps are related to a closer sibling relationship, so don’t take this information to mean that you shouldn’t have children close in age.

It is also important to remember that the transition might not be as bad as you think. Mothers have reported that the behavioral problems of the older child after having a baby are not as bad as they expected and that the older sibling had more positive interactions with the baby than they expected.

How to Help Your Older Child Before the Baby Arrives

Fortunately for all of us, research provides some clues as to how to ease this transition for your older child. The following strategies may be helpful to think about before the baby comes. As we all know, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure (particularly when you know you will be sleep-deprived during the cure).

  1. Talk about the new baby as a person with their own feelings, thoughts, and desires frequently before the baby is born. Research finds that when mothers take this approach, the older sibling interacts more positively with their new sibling eight and 14 months later. For example, “I wonder if when I dance with you like this, the baby is wondering why he's being jostled around so much” or “Do you feel the baby moving around in there? He must love apples because he always does that whenever I eat an apple.” This approach may help the baby seem “real” and help your child develop empathy for her new brother or sister.
  2. Set up playdates for your older child and work on their social skills. Developing more advanced social skills may help your child be ready to interact more positively with his or her sibling. Specifically, research finds that older children who show more positive play, longer periods of fantasy play, and better conflict resolution (compromising and negotiating) while their mothers are pregnant are more likely to have more positive interactions with their baby siblings between six and 14 months later. You can work on your child’s social skills through role-playing social situations with them (“If I had a toy you wanted to play with, what would you do?”), praising appropriate social skills (“You waited so patiently for your turn!”), and serving as a coach rather than an arbitrator in their conflicts with their friends (“It seems like you both want to play with the truck. How can we solve this problem?”). Ultimately, the key to developing social skills is to practice, practice, practice. So give your child ample opportunities to practice through play dates, activities, or classes involving other children or role-playing with you.
  3. Work on your relationship with your older child. Research finds that when older children have a more secure attachment relationship with their parents before birth, they tend to show a better adjustment to the birth of their sibling. You can work on your relationship with your child by giving positive attention to them, being responsive to their physical and emotional needs, providing consistent and predictable limits, and spending quality time with them.
  4. Read books about having a baby sibling to your child, but be careful about which books you choose. Research finds that children as young as 18 months can learn basic information from books. However, be careful about the books you choose since most children’s books about siblings highlight the conflict between siblings and fail to show healthy conflict resolution, negotiation, or problem-solving. The authors of this study reported that the following books include positive examples of negotiation or sharing: Martha Alexander’s (1975) I’ll Be the Horse if You’ll Play With Me, Florence B. Freedman’s (1985) Brothers: A Hebrew Legend, and Dale Fife’s (1985) Rosa’s Special Garden. They also state that the following books provide positive examples of siblings solving a problem together: The Train to Lulu’s (Howard, 1998), Slither McCreep and His Brother, Joe (Johnston, 1992), Too Hot for Ice Cream (Van Leeuwen, 1974), Let’s Be Friends Again (Wilhelm, 1986), and That’s Mine! (Winthrop, 1977).
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