Preparing Older Siblings for the New Baby

7 proactive ways to keep sibling rivalry from becoming an issue.


Having memorized the pregnancy books the first time around, many second-time parents turn instead to books on sibling relationships. But a review of 47 popular titles on the topic found that much of the advice contained in them is not supported by research and, conversely, that many omit tactics that have been proven to work.

"A lot of what's written advises parents to try to avoid as much conflict and bad feelings about the new baby as possible," says study co-author Laurie Kramer, Ph.D., a professor of applied family studies at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign. "Yet very little attention is given to being proactive in helping older children establish a positive relationship with the new baby." Here are seven ways to do just that.

1) Talk about the new baby as an individual. Encourage your child to think about what the baby might need and enjoy and what the future with him or her will be like. "Even children who aren't yet talking are very interested in feelings and why we behave as we do," says Judy Dunn, Ph.D., an expert on sibling relationships and a professor of psychology at the Institute of Psychiatry in London. For instance, ask: "Which mobile do you think the baby will like—the black-and-white one or the animal one?" Even if your child is unable to answer such questions, you can provide information about the baby, such as where he'll sleep and the clothes he'll wear. Research shows that the more families talk openly about things like why the baby is crying and even how tired the parents are, the better the older child adjusts, Dunn says.

2) Preview big-sister or big-brother resources. In one study Kramer co-authored, kids who were shown books or videos meant to prepare them for a new sibling actually had more negative interactions with the baby. "A lot of these books portray conflict or dissatisfaction in becoming a sibling, giving children the idea that not getting along is a possibility," Kramer says. Look for books and videos that avoid negative emotions and that show older siblings as warm and caring.

3) Don't rely solely on sibling-preparation classes. There is little, if any, research on their effectiveness. What's more, most introduce children to the concept of an infant and talk about safety issues but don't discuss the relationship they will have with the baby. "Parents need to build on what these classes do," Kramer says.

4) Help your toddler make friends before the baby is born. Children who have at least one good friend get along better with a new sibling, Kramer has found. The qualities that are most important in a friendship include the ability to initiate and take part in fun and positive play, to manage conflict and other negative emotions and to "pretend play," which requires taking another's perspective—good training for getting along with a sibling.

5) Don't separate the children. Because they expect conflict or worry that the older child will harm the infant, some parents keep their children apart. Doing this may keep the peace, but it won't help kids develop a close relationship. That's not to say you should let your toddler steamroll your infant. But rather than practicing avoidance, encourage your older child to help bathe, feed, dress and play with the baby and curb your reflex to constantly warn him about hurting the baby.

6) Teach your child how to interact with the baby. Young children can be shown how to initiate play with babies, what toys to play with and how to keep things safe. Promote positive interactions by saying to your older child, "He likes it when you do that," or "Look at him laugh at you." You can also teach your child how to say he doesn't want to play with the baby.

7) Don't put too much stock in regressive or negative behaviors. These usually ease up within six months. If your child starts acting like a baby (or worse) again, don't try too hard to change his behavior. And don't overlook the obvious: Make sure your older child feels secure in your love for him. If he seems upset by the newborn, spend time alone with him, Dunn advises. Remember, too, that the way you and your partner treat each other serves as a model for how to get along with another person.

Myths of Sibling Rivalry

Here are some conventional pieces of advice that have been debunked in research conducted by Laurie Kramer, Ph.D., and others:

Myth: You shouldn't let your older child watch you breastfeed. REALITY: Seeing you nurse is unlikely to create negative reactions.

Myth: You should de-emphasize the importance of the new baby in comparison to the older child. REALITY: Doing so could set up a competition and make your older child feel entitled to special treatment.

Myth: You should tell your child, "We love you so much, we wanted the chance to love another baby." REALITY: How would you feel if your significant other said, "I love you so much, I want another partner just like you?"