Helping Kids Adjust to a New Sibling

Mother breastfeeds newborn while toddler girl plays Adding a new baby or child into the family can be both exciting and stressful. There’s a lot to consider; for example, how, when and what you’re going to say, what you need to do to prepare, etc. While there are many different ways to approach the subject of a new sibling, the best thing you can do is start having conversations before you welcome your newest addition. Read on to learn tips to help your older child(ren) (and you) prepare and adjust to life with a new sibling.

  • Start a conversation. Adding a new member to the family is a big adjustment for everyone, so it’s important to be proactive and start a conversation with your child(ren) long before the newborn (or child) comes home. By starting the conversation early, you’re giving them a chance to take in all the information, share feelings and ask questions.
  • Be developmentally appropriate. Explain what's happening in simple terms your child(ren) can understand. With young children, give a simple explanation, such as the baby comes from inside mommy’s belly. Or, if you’re adopting a child, talk about how adoption means bringing a new child into the family and how all families can look different. If they’re curious to know more, follow their lead.
  • Help your child(ren) make sense of everything by:
    • Reading books together that help them understand what it means to have a sibling and be a big brother or sister.
    • Introducing them to other infants (or kids who are the same age if adopting a child), to give them a sense of what their new sibling may be like.
    • Using play to help them understand what it means to have a baby, or new child, in the family. If you’re expecting a newborn, you can use a doll to show them how to take care of a baby. Practicing with a doll can help them learn to be gentle and can give them a sense of purpose (by having a job taking care of their baby).
  • Validate their feelings and offer reassurance. It may be tempting to say things like “don’t worry” or “it’ll be fine” to try to make your child(ren) feel better. However, minimizing someone’s feelings doesn’t make them feel better. It teaches them not to talk about how they feel. Instead of minimizing or dismissing their feelings, let your child know you understand and that whatever they feel is normal and OK. Reassure them that they’ll still be loved and cared for just as much once the baby is born or the new child arrives. 

  • Be honest about expectations. As best as you can, try to prepare your child(ren) so there are fewer surprises. Be honest and concrete about how things will be different by acknowledging both the good changes and the challenging ones. Help them understand that the baby will be adorable and sweet, but also needs a lot of help and will cry when they need something. Or help them understand that it may take time for the new child to feel comfortable.
  • Focus on the positives. When in front of your child(ren), try to talk positively about the pregnancy, the new baby or the new child as much as possible. They’re following your cues. If they think you're stressed, they will be too. Help them focus on the fun they'll have being a big sibling.
  • Encourage their involvement in preparing for the baby or child. Have them assist with getting ready for the newest family member’s arrival by helping with small tasks, such as helping to pick items out at the store or putting together a simple piece of furniture with you for the nursery or bedroom.
  • Limit unnecessary stressors. This is a big transition for all of you. For everyone’s sake, do your best not to add any unnecessary stressors at the same time the new baby or child is arriving home. For example, when considering things like potty training your older child, or moving them into a new bedroom, try to wrap up the process long before the new arrival, or wait until everyone has adjusted. 

  • Try to maintain some routines. Many things are changing all at once, which can make anyone feel overwhelmed or stressed. Maintaining simple routines, such as having a consistent bedtime, will create a sense of predictability and comfort for your child(ren).
  • Continue encouraging involvement. Make sure your older child(ren) can be involved if they want to be. Teach them simple things they can do to help, such as sorting clothes or bringing you a new diaper or burp cloth. You can also teach specific ways they can interact with a baby, such as singing a song to the baby when they’re upset. If they aren’t interested in being involved, that’s OK. Respect your child’s decision and don’t force it.
  • Connect one-on-one. Although it may feel like a challenge to squeeze it in, it’s important to ensure there’s still one-on-one time with your older child(ren). Having some time alone with you helps them understand that they’re still important, and it can also reduce feelings of anger or jealousy directed toward the new sibling. There will naturally be a lot of focus on the new baby or child, so encourage people who visit to interact with your older child(ren) just as much, so they don’t feel left out.
  • Have realistic expectations and patience. This is a big transition for everyone, so it’s helpful to anticipate some bumps along the way and to try to be patient as everyone adjusts.   

When kids don’t have the words to express themselves, they show us with their behavior. It’s important to get curious about what their behavior is trying to communicate, rather than punishing or shaming them for their natural reactions to stress.

When kids are stressed, it’s normal to see:

  • Regression. Some regression in behavior, such as having accidents again or sucking their thumb when they had previously stopped.
  • Clinginess. You may also notice your child is clingy and seeking a lot of reassurance. Try to be understanding and supportive, by proactively giving them the attention they’re craving, so they don’t seek it out in negative ways.
  • Irritability. Your child may be more irritable or have more meltdowns than usual. Try to remember that they’re not trying to give you a hard time. They’re having a hard time. 

  • Build their feelings vocabulary. This is a good opportunity to teach your child(ren) to use words to express how they feel, rather than using their behavior to show you. Help them think beyond the basic feelings so they can more accurately describe what they’re experiencing. If they say they're mad, try giving them other possible words to describe how they feel. For example, “I wonder if you are feeling frustrated or disappointed. What do you think?”
  • Teach and practice healthy coping skills. Just like we need to help kids learn to express their feelings, we also need to teach them how to cope with them. It’s difficult to learn something new when we’re upset, so try to teach new coping skills when everyone is calm, rather than in the heat of the moment. Teach your child(ren) lots of options, such as deep breathing, singing or drawing, and then practice them regularly so it becomes familiar and routine.   

Welcoming a new family member can be both a challenging and rewarding phase of life, and those ups and downs build resilience. By communicating with your child(ren), and helping them identify and work through their feelings, you are giving them the tools they need to cope with stress now and as they grow.

Resilience is a lifelong journey. Try to be kind and patient with both your child(ren) and yourself. You are all doing your best to adjust to a major life change.