Development FAQ: 24+ months – Sibling Rivalry

My son of 26 months seems to have adapted to the birth of his brother two months ago. We have involved him as much as possible in caring for the baby, which he enjoys, but sometimes his caring nature is rather over enthusiastic. His gentle stroking has become rougher and showing toys to the baby has begun to involve forcing them into his hand. I am trying to stay positive and suggest ways for him to play with the baby without saying, “No, don’t hurt him” too often. I am afraid he will begin to resent his brother. What is the best approach to this problem?

Now that the excitement surrounding the birth of his brother has worn off, your eldest son may well be feeing a little jealous, realising that the baby does take up a lot of your time. This is a perfectly normal reaction for a two-year-old, but you will need to watch when he is near the baby as he may not be able to stop himself from giving an extra hard squeeze. Your son is still learning to cope with these new feelings about having a brother and all that it involves.

Also, a two-year-old does not realise his own strength when holding or touching a baby and he needs to be shown how to show affection. Find times, such as when you are changing the baby, to suggest that it is his job to rub cream on to the baby’s feet. Guiding his hand while saying, “rub gently” will help him to understand what pleases his brother most.

When you do notice how gentle he is being with his brother, make a point of praising him for it. The positive feedback he receives about what a great brother he is will encourage him to continue in this way. At two years of age, there are bound to be times when he either forgets how to be gentle or cannot resist the temptation to pat just that bit harder to see what effect it has. Keeping a close eye on him, and using distraction if you see him getting too rough, will usually work. If he does make his brother cry, you must point out to him why he is crying. You are right not to want to use “No” too much, so say something such as, “It hurts when you rub too hard – try the gentle way, which I know you are so good at”. There may, however, be times when your son is deliberately being a little rough, and then he must be told to stop. He has to learn that rough behaviour is unacceptable and this may mean using the word “No” with a firm voice.

Tell your older son how much his baby brother likes to watch him play. Place the baby out of reach of his brother, but still within sight of you both. Use a playpen or travel cot with a baby chair or play mat inside, but never leave your two-year-old in the room alone with the baby, even for a second or so. At that age, the temptation to try to reach his brother by climbing over the playpen or throwing a toy in, even if his intention is to give his baby brother something to play with, could end in a nasty accident. The reality of them playing together is not going to happen for many months yet, but it will not take long for your son to realise that his baby brother does enjoy watching him and he may well be one of the first people your baby smiles at with recognition.

Point out the differences between the baby and your elder son and say that he is able to do so much more than his brother. He will come to understand that his baby brother is not the same as him and needs to be treated in a different way. This will take time. It is better not to encourage him to hug or kiss his brother near the face. Instead, tell him that you think his baby brother loves to have his feet kissed, or the back of his head if he is sitting on your knee. Don’t keep insisting that your eldest “gives the baby a kiss” and let him decide for himself when he wants to show affection. You can ask at bedtime if he wants to say “goodnight” to his brother, but allow him to choose whether or not he wants to do this.

Make sure you have as much one to one time as you can with your eldest son each day. Tell him that you still love him just as much, even though you love the baby too, and while the baby is sleeping, enjoy a cuddle or look at a book together. Have some special activities, such as play dough or sticking, which are best kept for these one to one times together, when you can really give him your undivided attention.