My oldest son was just starting to show interest in potty training when his little brother was born. But once we brought that bundle of joy home, all bets were off. Part of the regressions your child will go through with a second baby can include difficulties with “big kid” activities as I experienced with my oldest, but older siblings can also experience a slide in other areas as well. It’s frustrating for sure, but not uncommon.
“We most commonly see behavioral regressions when a new baby arrives,” pediatrician Dr. Scott Krugman, Vice Chair of the Department of Pediatrics at Herman & Walter Samuelson Children’s Hospital at Sinai of Baltimore, tells Romper. “Toddlers especially are prone to be upset about the new competition and may increase temper tantrums, regress in potty training, and occasionally ask for bottles or pacifiers again.”
Even older kids can experience similar problems — disinterest in school, problems sleeping, and acting out can all happen when an only child has to transition into being part of a sibling set. “As with any transition, such as a new baby, new school, new routine, there may be new toilet accidents or difficulty with sleep,” Dr. Sarah Schaffer-DeRoo, a pediatrician at Children's Nations Hospital tells Romper.
Why Do These Regressions Happen?
Whether your older child has trouble settling down for a nap or suddenly becomes your household’s royal tantrum-thrower, the regressions they experience are likely pretty par for the course. “Unfortunately, with a new baby, things can become stressful and challenging, and parents often spend too much time correcting or saying, ‘no,’ to negative attention-seeking behaviors,” Krugman tells Romper.
Just like you need time to adjust to your parenting role when a new baby is welcomed into the family, so does your older child. And the younger your child is, the more important it will be to give them time and support when these regressions inevitably happen.
“When a toddler who is used to being the one-and-only has to suddenly share the spotlight, some regressive behaviors can crop up,” Dr. Rahil Briggs, National Director of HealthySteps, a program of the non-profit Zero to Three, tells Romper. “They may suddenly stop using the toilet — even if they had been using it consistently — or waking up in the night — even if they had been sleeping through. This is potentially because they see a younger, less-skilled baby getting all the attention, but it’s sometimes due to the simple stress of the changes to family structure and their parents’ attention. It doesn’t help to scold or punish in this situation.”
Fair Warning: Your Big Kid May Suddenly Act Like A Baby
The phrase “monkey-see, monkey-do” is one I often use now to describe how my youngest son wants to do everything his big brother does. But when my youngest was a baby, it wasn’t uncommon to see big bro reverting to baby-like behaviors, copying the new baby who was soaking up every ounce of my time. “Some children behave as they observe a new sibling behaving in an attempt to get the parent’s attention,” Schaffer-DeRoo tells Romper.
Especially when it’s a toddler or preschooler who is suddenly thrust into the role of the older sibling, this type of behavior can happen. “All toddlers want attention all the time, and now they can’t have it,” Krugman says. From thumb-sucking to wanting to constantly be held, this type of regression into baby-like behaviors is most often a cry for attention.
“It helps to remember that attention-seeking is really connection seeking and toddlers often feel legitimately left out of the new parent-baby bonding that’s happening,” Briggs explains. “A proactive approach where moms, dads, and other close caregivers set aside even 10 minutes a day to give an older child preventive attention and connection can pave the way for less rivalry and ‘acting out’ behaviors. Young children can’t be expected to manage their big feelings about being usurped as the only child on their own. They will need loving limits, emotional support, and much patience from their caregivers.”
How To Help Kids Prepare For The Change Of A New Baby
It makes sense that talking to your older child before your new baby is born may help them understand and prepare for the transition, but depending on their age, it may not actually stave off any regression. “It’s tough to prepare a toddler for the arrival of a sibling because it’s often outside the realm of their imagination — even if they’ve met friends’ or relatives’ new babies,” Briggs tells Romper.
Briggs warns that parents shouldn’t “oversell the benefits” of life after the new baby arrives, but rather explain the realities like how the “baby will cry a lot and wake up throughout the night and parents will be tired, and they may spend more time with a babysitter or grandparent.” A baby doll to play practice caregiving skills can also be helpful for littles.
“Parents can preempt attention-seeking behaviors by giving the older sibling a task to assist with the new baby’s care,” Schaffer-DeRoo says. “For example, a toddler can assist with diaper changes by always handing the diaper to the parent. I warn parents that this will inevitably slow the process, but it will reinforce for the toddler that they are a necessary member of the family and that the family cannot function as a unit without him/her.”
For older kids, a bit of planning can go a long way. “I would recommend making sure the older child is on as much of a routine as possible before the new baby enters the picture, which should be continued after the arrival,” Krugman says. Additionally, Krugman recommends designating a “special time” for older kids to be one-on-one with mom or dad each day, no matter what. “Older children who know they are going to automatically get attention each day may not feel the need to misbehave to receive it.”
“Finally, be patient and understanding with older children,” Krugman says. “Their world has just been rocked, and they have gone from 100% attention to something less than 50%. They will need time to adjust to their new reality.”
Dr. Sarah Schaffer-DeRoo, pediatrician at Children's Nations Hospital
Dr. Scott Krugman, Vice Chair, Department of Pediatrics at Herman & Walter Samuelson Children’s Hospital at Sinai of Baltimore
Dr. Rahil Briggs, National Director of HealthySteps, a Zero to Three program