New sibling: Preparing your older child

A new sibling can have a big impact on your family. Understand how to prepare your older child, introduce the new baby and encourage a healthy sibling bond.

By Mayo Clinic Staff

Bringing home a newborn is a little different the second time around. With your first child, you're focused on figuring out how to care for a baby. With the second baby, you're likely to wonder how your older child will react to having a new sibling — and how you're going to meet both of their needs. Here's help making the adjustment.

How can I prepare my older child for a new sibling?

Start by talking to your older child about the arrival of his or her new sibling. Explain in age-appropriate terms how the baby is growing, and ask him or her to help you set up the baby's nursery. Enroll in a hospital sibling class designed for children and parents to learn together about what it means to become a new sibling.

Explain to your older child that the baby will eat, sleep and cry most of the time. The baby won't be a playmate right away.

If your child will need to change rooms or move out of the crib to make space for the new baby, do so before the baby is born. This will give your older child a chance to get used to the new setup before dealing with the baby's arrival. Try to complete your older child's toilet training before the baby is born or wait until a few months after you bring your baby home to start the process.

Arrange for your older child's care during your time in the hospital or birth center, and let your child know that you will go away briefly and return. If possible, arrange a time for your child to visit the hospital or birth center ahead of time to remove some of the mystery.

How should I introduce my older child to his or her new sibling?

When the new baby arrives, have a family member or friend bring your child to the hospital or birth center for a brief visit. Allow another loved one to hold the baby for a while so that both parents can give the older child plenty of cuddles.

Consider giving your older child a gift that's from the baby, such as a T-shirt that says big brother or big sister. When you're home, take your older child to a special place — such as a favorite playground — to celebrate the new baby's arrival.

What can I do to help my older child adjust to having a new sibling?

Your older child's age and development will affect how he or she reacts to a new sibling. While older children are typically eager to meet a new sibling, younger children might be confused or upset. Consider the following tips to help your child adjust.

  • 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 are still quite attached to their parents and might feel jealous sharing your attention with a newborn. Explain that 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.

Regardless of your older child's age, make sure that he or she gets individual attention when the new baby arrives. If you're taking pictures or videos, include your older child. Take pictures or videos of him or her alone, too. Consider having a few small gifts on hand to give to your older child in case friends visit with gifts for the new baby.

What should I do if my child begins to act out?

Your older child might try to get attention by breaking rules — even if it means being punished. To stop this behavior, praise your older child when he or she is behaving well. If you suspect your child is behaving badly to get attention, consider ignoring the behavior. This might encourage your child to look for a more positive way to get your attention. Talk to your older child. Ask him or her how it feels to have a new sibling. Listen.

Keep in mind that children sometimes regress or act younger than their age after the arrival of a new baby, such as having toilet training accidents or drinking from a bottle. These are normal reactions to the stress of a new sibling that require tolerance rather than punishment. Give your older child love and assurance during regressive episodes.

How can I encourage my older child to be gentle with the new baby?

Sometimes older children — stressed by the changes happening around them — take out their frustration on a new baby. If your older child tries to harm the baby, it's time for a talk about appropriate behavior. Also, give your older child extra attention and include him or her in activities that involve the baby, such as singing, bathing or changing diapers. Praise your older child when he or she acts lovingly toward the new baby.

Even if your children seem to get along, supervision is essential. Don't leave your newborn alone with a sibling or other loved one younger than age 12.

How will my older child react to breast-feeding?

If you plan to breast-feed your newborn, you might wonder how your older child will react or how to keep your older child busy while you nurse. Your older child might hover upon first seeing you breast-feed. Explain what you're doing and answer any questions your child might have. If you breast-fed your older child, explain that you once did the same thing for him or her.

Consider creating a breast-feeding routine that involves your older child. He or she can play a special role, such as helping with a diaper change before the feeding or getting you a pillow. To keep your child entertained while you nurse, set out special toys or a workbook beforehand. Play music or audio versions of children's books. Invite your older child to cuddle with you while you nurse. If your older child asks if he or she can nurse, the decision is up to you. Most older children find the experience somewhat strange and lose interest.

How do I explain a medical concern to my older child?

If your new baby has health issues, explain to your older child that his or her baby sister or brother is sick, and you're worried. If your baby needs to stay in the hospital after he or she is born, ask about the sibling visitation policy. You might also take pictures of the baby and show them to your older child.

Keep in mind that if you don't talk to your older child about the baby's condition, he or she will likely still sense that something is wrong. Rather than keeping your older child in the dark, give him or her some information about the situation and show that you're there for him or her.

How do multiple babies affect older siblings?

If you have multiples, the time demands are even greater for parents. Multiples also attract attention from family, friends and even strangers. An older sibling might feel left out or jealous.

Your older child will need special one-on-one time with you. You also can consider ways to give your older child "double rewards" for helping take care of the babies.

How do I prepare my older child for an adopted sibling?

If you have older children when you adopt a baby, you'll have to answer different questions about babies and families. Finding age-appropriate books about adoption can help you talk about how the adoption process works and how your older child will become a sibling.

The unpredictable timing of an adoption placement can be difficult for your other children. Sometimes the wait for adoption is quite long, but the placement might happen quickly. The possibility of both waiting and rushing might make the transition to becoming a sibling stressful.

If your newly adopted child is not a baby, the transition to sibling relationships happens at a different pace. Your other children will experience the challenges of sharing not only you but also toys and space. It also might be difficult for children to understand the amount of time and attention an adopted sibling needs initially, even though the adopted child seems "old enough."

A new sibling will undoubtedly change your family. As your older child adjusts, reassure him or her of your love. Explain that he or she has an important role to play now, too — that of big brother or big sister.

March 20, 2018 See more In-depth