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Help Your Toddler Adjust to a New Sibling

July 21, 2015

By Jennifer Eckert

Help Your Toddler Adjust to a New Sibling: 3 Common Problems and Solutions | It's tough going from being the only child to having a baby in the house, especially for toddlers. As this mom navigates the behavioral changes, she shares three common problems and solutions to help your toddler adjust. | A sister kisses her baby sister.

Last month I shared strategies my husband and I used to prepare our son for the arrival of our new baby. Bobby has been a big brother to Baby Henry for almost six months now, and I have to admit that the adjustment period is still a work in progress.

According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, children between the ages of two and four have the most difficult time adapting to a new arrival since they are still very attached to their parents and may be sensitive to change. Bobby fits this definition to a T. Following are some of the observations I’ve made about toddler behavior in response to the arrival of a new sibling, along with strategies we’ve been using to cope.

The Problem: Acting Out 
When we first brought Henry home from the hospital, it seemed like Bobby would choose the minute I sat down to nurse to do something he wasn’t supposed to do. Numerous times, I found myself trying to feed a hungry newborn while trying to get my toddler to stop unrolling an entire roll of toilet paper, pulling the cat’s tail, or doing some other “no-no.” 

The Solution: Offer Alternatives 
Bobby was obviously trying to get my attention, and he figured that negative attention was better than no attention at all. I dissuaded him from this behavior by finding a special activity he could do while I was nursing. I knew he was obsessed with the ceiling fan in the master bedroom, so I would sit on the bed to nurse while he snuggled up next to me and blissfully turned the fan on and off with the remote.

The Problem: Regressing to Baby-like Behavior 
I thought we were going to get away without encountering this phase, but a few weeks ago, Bobby started to act less like a toddler and more like a baby. Instead of using words to ask for something, he started pointing and whining, and his interest in potty-training all but disappeared. He also wanted to be picked up and held all the time, and he suddenly “forgot” how to put his shoes on by himself.

The Solution: Point Out “Big Boy/Girl” Benefits 
Bobby obviously saw how much time my husband and I spent doing things for Henry and, in his two-year-old mind, decided that we would do the same for him if he stopped doing them for himself. We’re still working on this solution, but we have been trying to emphasize the positive side of getting older.

This past Independence Day, we let Bobby stay up to watch the fireworks and made a point of telling him that Baby Henry was too little to stay up late. We’ve also been consciously trying to praise him whenever he does something for himself. And, of course, a little babying doesn’t hurt every once in a while. I know the day will soon come when he no longer wants to curl up in my lap, so I’m enjoying it while I can.

The Problem: Competing for Attention 
This behavior reared its ugly head during a recent long car ride. Henry started crying, so my husband turned to try to soothe him. Suddenly, out of nowhere, Bobby started wailing at the top of his lungs—completely outdoing Henry. In other instances, whenever one of us praised Henry for some new accomplishment, Bobby would immediately do the same thing and say, “Bobby, too! Bobby, too!” 

The Solution: Turn Competition into Collaboration 
For two years, Bobby was used to being the center of attention . . . and then he suddenly had to share the limelight. My husband and I have tried to minimize feelings of competition by encouraging Bobby to help us care for Henry and then praising him for his good work. For instance, we’ve gotten Bobby to help us when giving Henry a bath. He loves pouring water over his brother’s body to keep him warm while in the tub. 

We also try to turn certain activities into things the boys can do together. Every month, we take Henry’s picture in the same chair so we can capture his growth during his first year. After we get some shots of Henry alone, we take pictures of both boys in the chair, followed by a few solo shots of Bobby. That way, he feels included in the process. 

None of these solutions are foolproof, but my husband and I hope that we are making the transition from only child to big brother a little easier for Bobby while also fostering a bond between our Bobby and Henry that will continue to grow as they get older.


Learn more about infant and toddler care in the YOU: Your Child's First Teacher 3-book set, available on Amazon

Jennifer Eckert is an editor at National Geographic Learning and a freelance writer. She lives in Chicago with one husband, two sons, and three cats.

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