Ask the Expert: Aiding The Only-Child-To-Big-Brother Transition

Staff Writer
Baystateparent Magazine

Dear Expert:

We will be welcoming a second child into the family in a few months. How can I best prepare my 23-month-old son for this major addition? What should I expect? He’s been the star of the show his whole life!

Dear Reader, 

Your question is a common one, and the answer varies depending on the age of the older child. For children of any age, however, you can expect to see changes in behavior after the new baby arrives, and there are steps you can take to mitigate feelings of jealousy. 

What to Expect

  It is common for children to be jealous when a new baby enters the picture, and this jealousy is often manifested through the child regressing. Do not be surprised if your 2-year-old returns to asking for a bottle or other behaviors that were common when he was younger, especially since he is too young to verbalize his feelings. Older siblings who are newly potty-trained might return to using diapers. After all, the new baby exhibiting these behaviors is receiving a great deal of attention. 

How to Prepare

  Parents of young toddlers often make the mistake of starting to prepare their child for a sibling’s arrival too soon. When you spend six months preparing a 2-year-old for the arrival of a new baby, it loses its meaning and impact, as these become words the child has heard for nearly a quarter of his or her life. If the older sibling is as young as age 2, then parents are better off waiting until two months before the due date to start building excitement.   

  Books, toys, and gifts can help to ease the transition. Buying your older child — boy or girl — a baby doll without mentioning the new baby can help teach the child how to gently interact with a baby, as can spending time with baby cousins or neighbors. Reading big brother or big sister books to your child is also beneficial.  

  As your due date nears, it helps to have a wrapped present for your older child in the bag that you will take to the hospital. When your older child visits the hospital after the birth, as is recommended, you can present the gift as being from the new baby. Likewise, it helps to have wrapped gifts in your closet at home in case a visitor comes by with a gift only for the newborn.

Returning Home 

When you are home from the hospital as a parent of two, there are steps you can take to ensure that your older child continues to feel valued despite the new baby’s need for attention. When the baby is sleeping, this is an opportunity to spend time with the older sibling, reading a book or taking a trip to the park. It is also helpful if one parent can focus energy on giving attention to your older child while the other is occupied with tending to the newborn. This attention can also be provided by grandparents, aunts, and uncles. 

  From a medical perspective, it is important to be cautious about germs if your older child attends day care. He or she should receive a flu shot.

Moving Forward 

After a few weeks with the new baby, it is common for an older sibling to suggest returning the child to the hospital. Do not be alarmed. Children often become disappointed when the initial excitement and gift-giving wears off, and when they realize their new sibling is not yet capable of being a playmate. Continue to be conscious of providing your older child with individual attention to ease the transition.   

  While older children will always have the memory of once being an only child, parents of young toddlers should realize that life with a sibling is likely all this child will remember.   

  Finally, it is recommended that you discuss your child’s changing behaviors — especially if they are concerning — with your pediatrician. It is often my experience that when parents bring in new babies for regular visits, they come prepared with a number of questions about the older sibling as well. 

Lynne Karlson, MD, is chief of general pediatrics and adolescent medicine at Floating Hospital for Children at Tufts Medical Center, and an associate professor at Tufts University School of Medicine.