Preschool Education Articles

Helping Children Adapt To A New Sibling

“Yes, but when does Joey go back to the hospital?”

At times, parents may ask you for advice in helping their children adjust to a new brother or sister. Most children welcome new siblings with excitement and affection, but the changes in their lives may also frustrate them. A mixture of positive and negative feelings and behaviors is common in children when a new brother or sister arrives. For example, children may feel jealous and left out, but they may also feel a great deal of pride and affection for their new sister or brother. Here are five ideas based on current research that can help promote good sibling relations.


Parents often consider timing when they are planning a new child. Some experts believe that children between 18 months and three years old have the hardest time adjusting to new siblings. Children under 18 months may have fewer problems because they don’t realize how life is changing for them. Four- and five-year-olds have more mature social and cognitive skills, so they can handle frustrating situations better than three-year-olds can. Parents should think about these things, but they should make their decision based on what will work best for the entire family.


It’s important to prepare children for a new child. Most parents read books about new babies to their children. Some excellent books on this topic include *101 Things to Do with a Baby* (Ormerod, 1984, Puffin Books) and *She Come Bringing Me that Little Baby Girl* (Greenfield, 1974, Harper Trophy). Another good book on this subject is *A New Baby at Koko Bear’s House* (Lansky, 1987, The Book Peddlers). Parents may also introduce their children to newborns when they have the opportunity, and they may talk about what a new baby can and cannot do. If the family is adding an older child through adoption or foster care, the same sorts of activities will help children prepare. Activities like these can also occur in child care settings. You probably should include some of these stories and discussions if you’re aware that a child in your group is expecting a new sibling.

Many hospitals offer sibling preparation classes. Young children who attend can see where their mother will stay if she is going to the hospital. They can also learn what new babies are like and how to avoid hurting them. All these ways of preparing children for the first set of changes they will experience can be very helpful.

Prepare children for the way they should behave with the new baby. Parents often worry that their older child may be too rough with the baby. As a result, they may emphasize many things children should not do with their younger siblings. Parents should give more attention to showing children ways they can have a safe and enjoyable time together. An older child needs to know how to play with a baby, how they can communicate, and how to handle conflict. Most sibling preparation programs do not work on the social skills a new brother or sister will need.

Parents help children with these skills as they give them suggestions and feedback on a daily basis. Children may also learn skills that set the stage for good sibling relationships by playing with other children. Children who play well with their friends are more likely to develop good relationships with their siblings (Kramer and Gottman, 1992). When your child is playing with other children, note her ability to manage conflict. See if she helps to keep the emotional climate pleasant. Child care providers also help children develop these skills. As they promote good peer relationships, they help children learn the skills they’ll need for good sibling relationships.


Some children regress in their behavior when a new child arrives. Children may be more demanding, have more toilet accidents, or they may have trouble sleeping. Although these problems can be annoying, parents shouldn’t worry about them too much. They usually disappear in three to five months. Many children show signs of greater maturity when a new sibling arrives. They may take pride in showing that they are different from their little brother or sister because they can dress themselves. This is a great chance to praise children for helping in a stressful situation. Remember, though, that the same children who are showing off their new skills can also be showing immature behaviors.


A good sibling relationship is more likely if parents value it. Parents should think about the way they would like their children to behave with each other. Then they should help their children learn to behave that way. If parents think it’s important that siblings share, they should look for chances to praise this behavior. For example, “I like the way you and Joey are playing together with that truck.” If parents value closeness and affection between siblings, they should look for examples of this behavior to praise. Parents should model the behavior they want to see in their children. They should avoid behavior that they don’t want their children to imitate.


Help your children find a role to play with their new sibling. Possible roles include assistant caregiver, teacher, helper, or playmate. As assistant caregiver, a child could fetch diapers, help entertain the infant, or help decide what the baby needs or is trying to express. Don’t push children into a caregiving role, though, if they don’t want it. If you do, they may feel that being a sibling is only a burden. Help the child find a different role to play, or wait until the baby is older and the children can interact together more successfully.


Babies seem to come into the world ready to adore their older siblings. Make sure your older children know how important they are to their brother or sister. It will give them a sense of pride and foster mutual enjoyment.


Kramer, L., and J. M. Gottman, 1992. Becoming a sibling: “With a little help from my friends.” *Developmental Psychology* 28:685-699.

Reprinted with permission from the National Network for Child Care – NNCC. Kramer, L. (1995). Helping children adapt to a new sibling. In Todd, C.M. (Ed.), *Child care connections*, 4(5), Urbana-Champaign, IL: University of Illinois Cooperative Extension Service.

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