By: T. Berry Brazelton, M.D., and Joshua Sparrow, M.D.

In the first months after the birth of a new sibling, the older child is likely to vacillate between ignoring the baby completely or treating her like a plastic – and indestructible – doll.

Yet there will also be moments of genuine tenderness, and the beginnings of learning to care and to nurture.

When a younger sibling is 2 or 3, she can be more of a playmate for the older one, even if there is an age gap of two years or more. However, the 2- or 3-year-old may now be more reluctant to be the older child’s “baby” or plaything.

By the time the younger child turns 2, shared words and gestures have deepened the siblings’ intimacy. They have developed their own language without words.

Watch the imitation between two siblings at this age. Once, while working with a Native American tribe’s Early Head Start Center, we were honored to be invited to a powwow. Two siblings, 3 and 5, were dancing at opposite ends of the gymnasium. The older one jumped, twirled and marched along. From all the way across the room, the 3-year-old studied every move he made, imitating him clumsily but almost precisely – and almost on cue.

I hadn’t known they were siblings until I saw that performance, when it became perfectly apparent.

What does all this imitation mean to the older child? He is watched, envied, copied, followed around all day. Although it’s flattering, it is also pretty hard to take. When his friends come over, the younger one wants to insert herself into their play and their relationships. When he tries to be alone, she is there.

When he wants to get involved in more mature pastimes, she pulls on him. His guilt about deserting her, and his secret sadness at abandoning her, are lurking just below the surface. She can and will play on it.

Meanwhile the meltdowns caused by their rivalry are proceeding apace. Interfering with each other’s play and bidding for parents’ attention, they just can’t stay out of each other’s business. Tripping each other. Rolling around on the floor. Splashing each other in the tub. Flicking food at each other across the table.

“I want as much ice cream as he got. One more spoonful.”

“No, you gave her more!”

Through their constant scuffles, they seem to be saying, “I want to be part of your every moment.” The older child has an unfair advantage. When he decides he’s had enough he can retreat to his room and slam the door. The 2-year-old, despondent, may throw herself on the floor in a flood of tears. Can you equalize their differences? Of course not.

Once you’ve separated them, you can treat each one as an individual. You can help each one to settle down. Both will push parents to take sides. Don’t do it. Instead, you can sympathize, and then ask each child to think about his or her role in the conflict.

To the older child, a parent might say, “I know it’s tough to have your little sister interfering all the time, but you can tell her to stop, or take your toys into your room and shut the door. You don’t have to hit.”

To the younger child, a parent might say, “I know you want to play with him so badly. But when he tells you he won’t, you’re going to have to learn to listen.”

Let her know you understand how hard that is for her, but that you can’t change it. Over time, this will help her to stop idolizing her older sibling and to start sticking up for herself. Right now, though, she’s bound to fall apart.

Predictable Times for Meltdowns

  • early morning, on the way to breakfast
  • at the table
  • shopping
  • attention to one child (nursing, reading, special help)
  • bedtime
  • birthday party of one sibling
  • Christmas and holidays with gifts and commotion
  • long trips

Responses to questions are not intended to constitute or to take the place of medical or psychiatric evaluation, diagnosis or treatment. If you have a question about your child’s health or well-being, consult your child’s health-care provider.

Dr. Brazelton heads the Brazelton Touchpoints Project, which promotes and supports community initiatives that are collaborative, strength-based, prevention-focused sources of support for families raising children in our increasingly stressful world. Dr. Sparrow, a child psychiatrist, is Director of Strategy, Planning and Program Development at the Brazelton Touchpoints Center. Learn more about the Center at

Reprinted with permission from the authors.