When a child meets a new sibling their environment changes quickly. Some of these changes can make their lives unpredictable, as the presence of a newborn can impact the family in many ways.
Older siblings are used to receiving constant predictable attention from their family for two to three years before becoming older siblings (Baydar et al., 1997) and it could potentially cease to be the case as the baby becomes the center of attention.
What types of behaviors are common from an older child when a new baby arrives?
You may notice your child clinging more towards you, avoiding the newborn’s presence, or presenting negative language (“I do not like him”). If these conditions persist with lack of parental attention, they could develop into some aggressive behaviors towards the baby.
It is often the case that a child’s aggression towards others draws negative attention (e.g., reprimand). As a result, aggression towards the baby could be used to gain access to your attention (e.g., reprimand).
Another behavioral change, commonly defined as “behavioral regression”, is the tendency for some children to regress to previous developmental stages. Older siblings could request for the same treatment the younger siblings receive (e.g., nursing, diaper changes, wants to be spoon-fed, etc.) These behaviors may be presented temporarily as they adjust to the environmental changes.
What can parents do to help prepare other siblings for the arrival of a new baby?
- Schedule individual time alone with older siblings. It is important to establish the routine of allotted time before the baby’s birth. Distribute these moments with family members. Individualized social interactions (reinforcement) could make the transition manageable for older siblings. In general, it’s helpful to show extra affection or even use more kind words towards the older siblings.
- Set reminders for yourself. Maternal exhaustion while taking care of the newborn could change the way you interact with the older siblings. It is advisable to prepare for these eventualities. One potential method can be a strategically placed message (post note, refrigerator magnet, etc.) serving as a reminder to smile and show excitement when interacting with older siblings.
- Avoid negotiations and make a plan. Maladaptive behaviors may be presented during the transition period. You should try to avoid the trap of negotiating with the older siblings as these negotiations can lead to reinforcement access (e.g., attention). Entering a logical argument or providing alternative reinforcement (e.g., preferred activity) while they are presenting maladaptive behaviors can make the situation more complex in the future. Instead, have a plan in place. For example, in anticipation of the child entering the room while mom is nursing, prepare the area in advance so the older sibling can be present and snuggle next to mom during the activity.
- Distribute responsibilities. Bedtime routines are another facet of the older siblings’ lives that may be interrupted. For example, as mom is busy with a fussy newborn at 2 a.m., other children may require her attention. Parents should prepare for this eventuality. They can devise a way to distribute the responsibilities. This can include defining family members’ roles under these and other scenarios.
- Involve older children. Children love to play make believe, so you could use this prefered activity to introduce future changes (newborn) and prepare older siblings (teaching) by including changes in their routine while modeling appropriate behaviors. With older children, parents can make them part of the team by assigning them things to do (picking up toys, putting away baby clothes, etc.). They can also be involved in decorating the baby’s room or helping with toy selection.
How can parents work with a child who displays signs of jealousy or aggression towards a new baby?
Let’s say an older sibling takes away the newborn’s pacifier and as a result the newborn is agitated. This behavior may be a way to get access to your attention (e.g., reprimand). Hence, you should refrain from making a big deal of the incident. Rather, take care of the baby and ignore the older child’s behavior. Later, as soon as an appropriate time has passed (1-5 min), you can provide attention for any appropriate behavior presented by the older sibling, for example “great work [cleaning up].”
Behavioral changes, during the adjustment period may be temporary if you follow these suggestions, provide the most attention to appropriate (positive) behaviors rather than inappropriate (negative) behaviors, and take time to prepare your family before the new baby’s arrival.
Baydar, N., Hyle, P., & Brooks-Gunn, J. (1997). A longitudinal study of the effects of the birth of a sibling during preschool and early grade school years. Journal of Marriage and the Family, 59, 957–965. http:// dx.doi.org/10.2307/353795