In the eyes of a 2-year-old, a new baby in the house can look like the worst type of party crasher -- the kind who demands everyone's attention while hogging all the goodies. Why would mom and dad ever invite such a person? And when will they tell her to leave?
A few kids are eager to become brothers and sisters, but many go into the role kicking and screaming -- literally. Newly minted siblings find many ways to express their distress and confusion. Some regress back to a time when they were the center of attention. A 3-year-old who has been potty trained for months may start wetting his pants, and a 2-year-old may suddenly want to drink from a bottle or forget how to talk. They may beg mommy to take the baby back to the hospital. Older children may even shove a baby around in anger.
But experts say that sibling rivalry shouldn't be a major concern when you're planning a family. It's true that most 4- or 5-year-olds have relatively little trouble accepting a new baby, but 1-, 2-, or 3-year-olds can rise to the challenge, too. They just need a little preparation, patience, and on-the-job training.
When to start
The preparation should start well before the baby arrives. Sometime during the second trimester, you should tell your child that a new brother or sister is on the way. Sharing the news earlier is risky, because of the chance of a miscarriage. But you don't want to wait much longer, either, because your child needs time to adjust.
The conversation can start with "You're going to be a great brother." Even if he's very young, you can talk specifically about how he can play with and take care of the new baby. You can let him feel the baby move, and you can read age-appropriate books about babies and pregnancy. Perhaps most important, you should explain that the baby will be a new person with her own set of feelings and needs.
Becoming a brother or sister is a big transition, so now's the time to get other big moves out of the way. If your child sleeps in a crib, you may want to try moving him to a bed. If he's ready to start potty training, you can start getting serious about the project. And if you were thinking about finding a bigger place to live, the move should happen sooner rather than later. If you wait until the baby arrives to take these steps, your child is more likely to blame her for all of the sudden upheaval.
When the baby arrives, your older child should have a chance to see her up close or visit her in the hospital. Everyone will be ooohing and aaahing over the little one, so be sure to give your older child some extra attention. Remind him that the baby is lucky to have him around.
Talk about feelings
No matter how well you've prepared him, your older child is bound to notice a shift in the spotlight when the baby comes home. Don't be too alarmed if he seems upset at first. Talk to him about his feelings ("You must be feeling pretty mad at how much time I'm spending with the baby"). Read him children's books about the arrival of a new baby. If your child seems hostile toward the baby but can't seem to talk about it, you might also share your own mixed feelings, explaining that you love the baby but sometimes hate, say, having to change her diapers. Reassure your older child that you love him just as much as ever.
If your child still feels jealous and resentful, he may throw tantrums as a way of telling you so. He may wet the bed, wake up crying inconsolably, or reject you and choose the babysitter as his new favorite person. These are a normal ways of coping -- don't take them personally or scold him. Make sure he's getting as much time and attention as the new baby.
Stress that although it's okay to feel angry, it's never okay to hit or hurt the baby. Give your older child lots of praise when you catch him being gentle or helpful. His jealousy will fade after a while, especially if he gets some one-on-one time with one parent -- and preferably both -- every day. Just 20 minutes of playtime can prevent a lot of hard feelings.
Sibling rivalries never really disappear. Before you know it, those two kids will be trying to outdo each other in college. For now, they just need to learn to love each other -- and to get along.
Kramer, L. and D. Ramsburg. Advice given to parents on welcoming a second child: A critical review. Family Relations. 51: 2-14.
University of Michigan Health System. New baby sibling. July 2004. http://www.med.umich.edu/1libr/yourchild/newbaby.htm
Ohio State University. Helping older siblings adjust to their baby sib. http://ohioline.osu.edu/hyg-fact/5000/5307.html
American Academy of Pediatrics. Preparing your family for a new baby. http://www.healthychildren.org/English/family-life/family-dynamics/pages/Preparing-Your-Family-for-a-New-Baby.aspx