Welcoming a new baby: Rules of engagement for big sibs

Worried you don’t have enough space in your house or enough attention to give two kids? There’s plenty to fret about when you are expecting an addition to the family. Don’t waste your time worrying; this efficient guide will prepare any age sibling for the new arrival:

Under age 2

You can give your toddler an army of baby dolls and let her rub your giant tummy for hours but these kiddos aren’t quite developmentally capable of understanding what is about to erupt into their home. For a toddler, the most traumatic part of the new baby experience is typically when she has to leave mom in the hospital. Parenting guides offer lists of tips about how to explain that a new baby is on the way. But your efforts are futile, a two-year old can’t quite grasp this abstraction.

Your efforts are better spent ensuring that your older child has a good sleep routine. Remember, you will now have two bedtime routines and nighttime awakenings, so put your energy into making one of them easier. Read my sleep recommendations to make bedtime easier.

Also, once baby comes home, anticipate that your toddler may show little interest in the new baby. Don’t fret; this will change. Once the baby can giggle, sit up, or otherwise socially engage, the kids will interact more.


Age 3-4 years

Be thankful for the toddler’s indifference, because three-year olds are typically overenthusiastic. Big sis believes that the closer her nose is to the baby’s face, the more the baby will pay attention. I recommend instituting two rules before baby comes home. 1. Wash your hands before you touch the baby (for the first month at least) 2. You may touch the baby on the top of the head and the feet.

Attending to two children will be challenging. But remember everything you do for your older child will enhance your younger child’s learning as well. When you read to the older child while feeding the younger one, they are both learning new sounds.

The first few months are often a time when parents allow more electronic entertainment. Don’t beat yourself up for ‘poor parenting;’ plan ahead and identify educational apps or find quality TV shows like Sesame Street. See my media guide for more ideas.


Over 4 years

These “big kids” understand big family change. And as a parent you will find yourself placing new expectations. Kids this age are ready to practice more independence, but they have poor judgment. Anticipate they may try to help you in unhelpful ways; be sure to remind preschoolers that they cannot pick up the baby or feed them without permission. I’ve seen skull fractures in dropped siblings and babies who have choked on Doritos.

Preschoolers may also regress in their behavior or ask for help with skills they have already mastered. It’s frustrating for a parent. Be patient and encouraging. “I know you can put on your shirt, but I’m right here to help if you need me.”

TODAY.com Parenting Team Contributor

Author: Wendy Hunter, MD

Pediatrician at Children's Primary Care Medical Group, La Jolla, CA

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