How to Prevent New Sibling Rivalry

Preparing your older child for a new baby
pregnant woman with toddler on her lap
Maria Evseyeva/

Preparing your child for a new baby is a lot like trying to prepare for an earthquake. It remains abstract and theoretical until the event actually happens—for both you and your child! New sibling rivalry and resentment can rear up suddenly, even if you think your child is excited about a cute new family member.

There are some general assumptions. For instance, the older the child, the easier the adjustment—especially if they are already a big brother or sister and have been through this before. But that was a different time and some adjustment to a new baby is to be expected at any age or place in the birth order. Another tendency is that in the excitement of the first week or two, children typically don’t “act out” too much. It is usually after that time that, when it progressively dawns on them that this baby is staying for more than a visit, their behaviour changes and sibling rivalry can emerge. Often by this time, parents have relaxed into the relief that their child isn’t expressing hostility towards the baby and can be surprised by the shift in behaviour.

Practical tools to prepare your child for a sibling

Have conversations

Reading books to your child about what it is like to have a baby can be helpful as they may feel encouraged to initiate discussions. Address concerns and talk about the upcoming changes but don’t over-emphasize or make it a big deal. Be mindful that, just like an earthquake, you can have a plan and preparedness kit, but if an impending earthquake is all you talk about you might simply contribute to their anxiety.

Involve others

If your child is reliant on only you for everything, it will be a more difficult transition for both of you! When you are pregnant, start including your partner or family members in their care and support so they have a larger pool to draw on when you are busy with baby. Choose an activity that you love to do with your child and try to maintain that activity through this transition. This can include bathing or bedtime stories. Both of you will look forward to these activities together and it can be a thread of security for times when you’re occupied elsewhere.

Create rituals

Routines make children feel safe. They provide structure to a seemingly unpredictable world. In times of change these routines and boundaries are particularly important. Therefore, this is not the time to take them out of routine activities such as daycare or play dates just because you are home, or to allow exceptions to the rules, such as bedtimes. This can add to the uncertainty they are experiencing. Calling on support from family member to attend to or transport your child will free you up at home to rest and bond with your baby while expanding your child’s source of care and support: win-win.

Involve your child

Soothe your child’s sense of displacement by involving them in the care of the newborn. Ask them to get diapers. Let them pick out clothing for your baby to wear. Occasionally remind them that “watching is helping” when you don’t want assistance with activities like bathing! Show them how to help or behave with the baby. Demonstrate how to be gentle and care for the baby and have them to mimic your activity at the same time with dolls. Both girls and boys benefit from nurturing activities such as diapering and feeding.

Reassurance and redirection

Commonly, parents report regression in their child’s behaviour—baby talk, whining, and more “accidents” in their pants even if they have been toilet trained for a while. These behaviours are often attempts to get attention for the same things your baby is doing! Recognize them as a sign of insecurity and need for positive attention, and avoid engaging in power struggles. Also avoid shaming them by saying, “You shouldn’t do that! You are a big boy now!” Rather, reassure them that you love them and demonstrate how you want them to behave. “I would love to help you and I like hearing your big kid voice”. Use the tried-and-true parenting technique of redirection when your child is acting out or doing something that you don’t want them to do.

Set up a "nursing station"

On average, in a 24-hour period, a mother will breastfeed for the same amount of time as a full time job! One of the most difficult adjustments for a child is learning to wait—and this is particularly challenging when mom is breastfeeding. The time spent breastfeeding creates a lot of opportunity for a child to become frustrated and act out! Create a comfortable space for breastfeeding times that incorporates an assortment of activities to do with your older child. The I Spy seek and find books are a lot of fun. Puzzles are also great. Breastfeeding can then be an inclusive activity that they have a choice to be connected to.

Preparing a child for a new sibling is challenging and important work. Helping them understand what will happen, and accompanying them through the adjustment with capable guidance, security, and reassurance will serve them well and cultivate a healthy sibling relationship.

*Originally published January 29, 2016