Dear Mr. Dad: My 5-year-old son was completely toilet trained, had given up his pacifier, and was chattering away in full sentences. But ever since we brought our infant daughter home from the hospital, he’s regressed. He’s having accidents almost every night, has started sucking his thumb, and is speaking like a 2-year-old. What’s going on? And what can we do to get our boy to start acting his age again?
As annoying as it is, your son’s behavior is actually very common – especially among firstborns. Think about it from his perspective. Until his baby sister showed up, he was the center of the universe and he had you and your spouse all to himself. But now, that whiny little brat (in his view) has displaced him. He sees how quickly you respond when the baby cries and he’s well aware of how much time you spend changing her diapers. So in the not completely rational mind of a 5-year-old, if he cries more, wets his bed and generally acts like a baby, you’ll spend more time with him, just like you used to when he was an only child.
In addition to the nighttime accidents, baby talk and thumb-sucking that you’ve noticed, newly created older siblings can often develop a variety of other behavior issues. These include becoming aggressive and demanding, having trouble sleeping and temper tantrums (all of which are attempts to regain the attention – and love – he thinks he’s lost).
There’s no question that your son’s behavior is going to be frustrating. Fortunately, it’s temporary. Once he gets used to having the baby around (that usually happens within four to six months), he’ll gradually change back to his older, more mature self. In the meantime, try not to criticize his behavior or punish him for it. Instead, go along with it. At the same time, subtly remind him that he’s a big brother with big-brother abilities and privileges.
There are a few things you can do to speed this process along. To start with, get out your old photo albums and show him pictures of when he was a baby. The goal is to remind him that he was once an infant and that his new sister isn’t getting anything that he didn’t get when he was that age. Next, make a serious effort to spend time with him one-on-one. He needs your undivided attention, even if it’s for only 15 minutes a day. Snuggle up in bed and read stories together, do art projects, go for walks or bike rides, eat ice cream – all activities that only big kids get to do.
Another way to help him get used to his new role is to show him how he can help with the baby, either by assisting with diaper changes or feedings, or just entertaining her. Always supervise his contact with her, though. And don’t push too hard. If your son resists your efforts to involve him in the baby’s care, back off. If you’re too insistent, he may end up resenting his new sister. After all, she’s your baby, not his.
Finally, watch out for gifts. He’s going to get jealous if every person who walks in the door brings something special for the baby and nothing for him but a pat on the head and a silly comment about how much fun it is to be a big brother. Yeah, right. So put the word out to friends and family to bring something small for your son as well.
Armin Brott is the author of “The Expectant Father: Facts, Tips, and Advice for Dads-to-Be.”