3 Keys to Help Siblings Adjust to a New Baby
You may be wondering how your toddler, child or kids will adjust to the arrival of a new baby in the family. Will they confidently step into their new role as an older sibling, or will they struggle, resist or even reject the baby? Adding to the family is such an exciting prospect– More love! More laughter! More fun! – but the emotional and logistical changes that come with it can sometimes lead to more stress and conflict, too– unforeseen challenges that we might not feel equipped to handle.
When transition-related regressions and challenges arise with our older child/ren, we can naturally feel confused, frustrated and even worried. “Why are they doing this? A new baby should be joyous! We want them to be best friends!” We can easily forget that the new faces, demands, routines and reduced time with us can literally turn our kids’ previously small, safe world upside down.
Child development research suggests that our kids do the best they can with the skills they currently have, so considering ways to focus less on controlling what they do and more on considering what we can do to support them through this time can be incredibly productive!
The three keys to help siblings thrive through the acclimation process with a new baby are to SHOW, SHARE and LOVE. See below for these flexible, relationship-based strategies that can help you raise your awareness, elevate your skills and nurture your family’s connection to grow closer rather than farther apart during this exciting and challenging time.
1. SHOW // Adjust their environment + routine before baby arrives
Though our instinct is often not to change anything for as long as possible before the baby changes everything, beginning some caregiving transitions early on can help everyone, especially our kids. We can ask ourselves: what might change in the environment or routine for our child when the baby arrives, and what adjustments or preparations could we possibly begin ahead of time so the impact is spread out and feels less intense for everyone?
Our kids need more than just our words to understand that their lives will be changing, and making thoughtful, early transitions whenever possible to their environment and daily routine can help put the impending baby and transition into a clearer context for them, not to mention us. It can also offer an opportunity to us to look ahead and trouble-shoot future situations that might get a bit tricky!
1. Set up the nursery, baby items, changing stations, car seat and stroller- if the kids want to help, great! You can discuss what each item is for, how the baby will use it, etc.
2. Ask your partner or family to begin care activities they may take on when you’re with the baby instead of the child- bath, bed, breakfast, pick-up, etc. Can any of these transitions begin somehow beforehand?
3. Help your child comfortably find sleep in their own bed if you hope to co-sleep alone with the baby, or transition to toileting from diapering if they show signs of readiness and you’d prefer just one in diapers.
4. Allow your child to play and experiment with the baby’s goods and gear to satisfy their curiosities, and practice getting curious and setting loving limits if and when necessary.
5. Consider how your care of your kid/s may change based on the baby’s needs in the mix. Will you both need to get comfortable with the idea of watching them play from the couch while nursing instead of on the floor with them? If you’ll be carrying the baby, how will you support your child without picking them up?
2. SHARE // Listen + offer relevant information to them
It can be natural for us to unwittingly over-share or under-share the changes that are about to happen with our kids, as we may worry that if we share too much information they’ll feel overwhelmed, but if we share too little information they may feel blindsided or even gaslit! Rather than believe that sharing is an all-or-nothing, one time conversation from us to our kids, we can try our best to explore the relevant details with them over time so that they can feel informed and secure.
It can be hard enough for us to conceive of the reality of a baby, but it’s an even more abstract and anxiety-inducing concept for kids to get their minds around! Keeping our shares kid-relevant and kid-led can help them learn just enough of what to expect when the baby arrives. We can offer them information when they seem receptive and comfortable, and what we share can be based on and led by their own curiosity and personal experience. Beyond what we say, listening to our kids is critical too, as it shows us where and how to focus on our kids’ unique curiosities and emotional needs.
1. Buy an anatomically correct baby doll that you can discuss and answer questions about, practice holding and diapering, role play in context and offer to your child to examine, touch and play with.
2. Create a book with your child that has the essential info about the baby, the birth plan, where and when things will be, who your child will be with, and answers to any other questions and thoughts that arise.
3. Stick to the facts on where, when, and how the baby will arrive and how your child will logistically be impacted. Let them ask as many / the same question as often as they need to process and accept.
4. If your child struggles to talk directly about the baby, create opportunities during play (with dolls or legos, for ex) for them to ask questions, get goofy or express their feelings and musings about the baby.
5. Show your child old photos of themselves when they were babies and have fun talking about what it was like, what you did, etc. Tell stories and answer questions to feel connected to the early days.
3. LOVE // Provide consistent emotional support + loving limits
We want so desperately for our kids to accept and support the new baby that we can find ourselves focusing only on the positives (ie our expectations) with them, even and especially when they vulnerably share their negative feelings with us. When their emotions or behaviors seem counterproductive to our goal of family harmony, we can instinctively reject them, or try to convince or shame them out of their experience. It can be really difficult to trust in our childs’ inner world and process!
Aside from the feelings they share about the transition, our older kids can also express their stress through direct and indirect behaviors: hitting the baby, us or their other siblings, “regressing” in toileting or independent sleep or play, or increased meltdowns and general resistance. Our culture typically sees these as maladaptive rather than as developmentally normal methods of communication of their needs, and we ourselves can understandably wish our older kids could step up and make it easier for us all. We need to remember that even though our kids are older, they still need our love and understanding.
1. Bring up “the baby elephant in the room” now and then to normalize the reality that you and they may understandably struggle through this transition, but that you’ll get through it together– as a family.
2. Try to validate and translate their negative feelings about the baby, you or their new life- no matter how radical they sound. Looking beneath their wild words can help heal the root cause: anxiety and sadness.
3. Identify and find ways to work with rather than against their unique stress language– what is their nervous system needing? Connection? Movement? Quiet? What expectations can you reduce for now?
4. Find a few moments within the day that they have your undivided attention to feel seen, heard and loved. Allowing the baby to wait for a moment now and then can show kids that their needs matter, too.
5. Set limits early and as lovingly when you can so they can separate what they do from who they are. This approach nurtures their skills, your relationship and their self-concept without confusion or shame.
Let’s face it– we’re all trying our best to acclimate to the joys and challenges of LIFE, let alone a growing family. We won’t always be able to prepare our kids– or even ourselves– for everything when it comes to routine and environment, information sharing and loving limits…. And that’s OK. What we can offer our family throughout the challenges that arise is a reminder that the hardest moments are opportunities for growth, and that our goal need not be immediate harmony but ongoing connection.
Our kids’ resistance and regressions will fade over time with our awareness and support, and one of the greatest factors to our kids’ future sibling relationship isn’t actually how often they struggle, but how we respond. We give you permission to lean into the myriad of challenges with a belief in trust over fear, connection over control and progress over perfection. You’re not alone, and we’re all growing up together!
About our guest bloggers:
Hannah & Kelty are twins, coaches and speakers behind the parenting movement Upbringing. Certified in Simplicity Parenting, Positive Discipline and trained in NVC and Foundations of the respectful parenting approach RIE, Upbringing empowers parents in over 100 countries to show up + grow up alongside their sensitive and strong-willed kids when it comes to daily discipline.
Learn more about Upbringing’s coaching, speaking and respect-based, research-informed online baby course + community: Right From The Start!