The gift of a new family member may feel more like the booby prize to your firstborn, so don't be surprised if number one greets the new baby with anger instead of adoration. To help your child adjust to life with a younger sibling, QualityHealth enlisted the expertise of Roni Cohen Leiderman, PhD, Dean of the Mailman Segal Center for Human Development at Nova Southeastern University in Florida.

Before Baby Arrives
Be sure your child hears the news of your pregnancy from you, Leiderman says. "When you decide it's time to tell family and friends, be sure to let your child in on the news. Hearing about the baby from a classmate or neighborhood pal can be confusing and cause resentment," she explains. Once the pregnancy has been revealed, involve your child in it as much as possible. Giving her opportunities like choosing the baby's going-home-from-the hospital outfit will help her feel included and important. An older child can accompany you to your ultrasound, and show the photo to friends and teachers at school.

Playing house with younger children is a fun and effective way to prepare for the changing dynamic. "Encourage both sons and daughters to play with baby dolls. Imaginative play provides practice with real-life situations and gives young children ways to work out issues and fears," says Leiderman. "Explain that since babies can't talk, they cry when they are hungry, wet, or want to be held." Role-play with the baby doll and take cues from your child regarding his feelings about the upcoming addition to the family. After the baby is born, you can encourage number one to get his dolly when it's feeding or changing time so he can care for his baby, too. "Make sure you offer boys the same meaningful experiences."

Leiderman recommends putting off any major transitions for number one until after the birth of your new baby. "Giving up a bottle or pacifier or starting a new school program are major events in the life of a young child. It's best to time these changes so they don't correspond too closely to the birth of the baby," the dean advises.

Moving number one to a new room, or from the crib to a big-kid bed should be done months in advance and with plenty of input from your child. "Make it an opportunity for the older child to feel important by having him pick out bed linens and other special items for his new space," Leiderman says.

Reading books related to what's happening in your family can prompt discussion and help reinforce to number one that you will love her just as much after the new baby arrives. Visit friends with babies and sign up for a sibling class at the hospital. "Going to a home with a baby in it allows your older child to experience what having an infant in the house looks and feels like. Take advantage of the experience by talking about feelings after the visit," Leiderman explains.

Finally, be sure number one understands the plan when the due date draws near. He should know, for example, that Grandma or Aunt Jane will be with him while you are in the hospital and they will bring him to meet his new sibling as soon as they can. "Many children think hospitals are only for sick people. If possible, tour the building together. Seeing where you will be and talking about what will be happening will assuage anxiety," Leiderman says.

After Baby Is Born
Adjusting to the new normal takes time and patience, but paying close attention to the behavior of your firstborn is the key to a successful transition, according to the expert.

"If you see your older child acting differently—crying or clinging to you more, for example—be sure to address it," Leiderman advises. "As much as we think we are giving the older child the same amount of attention that we did before the arrival of the new baby, we most likely aren't. It's just not possible."

Although it can be challenging, spending one-on-one time with number one is essential. You don't have to hire a babysitter and plan a complicated outing. "It can be as simple as putting the baby down for a nap and making sure your older child knows that while baby sleeps, she can have special mommy or daddy time," Leiderman suggests.

Not giving enough attention to a child when she is acting appropriately guarantees she will act out in a negative way in order to get more of your attention. "That's when tantrums erupt," Leiderman explains, adding that you should also expect some regression. "It's not unusual for a child who was toilet trained to begin having accidents. You may see thumb-sucking again or demands for the bottle. Be sensitive to his feelings and allow him the luxury to be babied a bit. It's temporary, and will pass when routines get re-established and he begins to feel more secure and accepting."

Leiderman strongly encourages parents to legitimize all feelings. "If number one says he hates the baby, don't reprimand him. Listen closely and restate his feelings to let him know you hear him and accept how he feels." For example, instead of: "Tommy, how dare you say you hate your brother!" try "I think you are sad (or angry or frustrated) that mommy is holding the baby so much. I will put the baby down and you and I can go make a picture together."

The child doesn't hate the baby, but he is trying to cope with an intrusive new person in your home: the baby's presence may be diminishing the specialness he is used to feeling. Making an extra effort to include the older child when guests come to see the new baby will go a long way toward curtailing bad behavior. "Encourage family and friends to remember the older child with a small gift for big sis, especially if they are bringing something for the baby," says Leiderman. "A book the older child could read to the baby is ideal and helps foster a sense of pride in big brotherhood or sisterhood."

To build her confidence, be sure to point out all the things your older child can do that baby can't yet, like climbing on bars at the playground, eating cookies, throwing a ball, etc. "Making a fuss over what's special about number one helps her feel good about herself."

Nurture that sibling bond even more by giving your older child some special responsibilities. "Have him make a Baby is Sleeping sign for his sister's door or—if he's old enough—put him in charge of pushing the stroller."

Most importantly, have fun with the new baby. This can be a time of great joy for the whole family. In the end, mom and dad are the ones who receive the best gift—the gift of watching that sibling bond grow and develop. And that's just priceless.


Interview with Roni Cohen Leiderman, PhD, Dean of the Mailman Segal Center at Nova Southeastern University