Preschooler's Dislike of Baby

Parent Q&A

Select any title to view the full question and replies.

  • My 3-year-old daughter has struggled on and off since our son was born 9 months ago. She's in a phase where she gets this wild energy around him and HAS to be on top of him- jumping on/near him, pinching him, grabbing him, singing (screaming) in his face. It's like a compulsion that she can't stop. I keep them apart as much as possible when I see her going into one of these moods, but I also don't want to discourage her from playing with him or think she's in trouble because of him. Sometimes she's super sweet with him and I want to foster their bond, not pit them against each other. I react patiently the first 5 times it happens, but then I admit that I start to lose my cool and get mad. I feel like I'm failing by not helping her to process these big emotions she's obviously experiencing. Any advice or similar experiences out there? Does this sound like a normal reaction on her part, in terms of how frequently the behavior is happening? This is really weighing on me and is starting to affect my relationship with my daughter, which is the last thing I want to happen. Thanks for any insight. 

    I have boys 3 years apart and I has a similar experience. The older child is excited to have a sibling but this excitement cannot be fulfilled by an infant. On the bright side, it DOES get better, much better as a younger sibling learns to sit, then crawl, and then run. They will learn to play together :-), and fight with each other :-(, but that will be a different story.

    I had such sad feelings reading this. I was bullied relentlessly by my older sister, who pinched, hit, kicked and taunted me all of my childhood years, until we were teenagers and basically didn't interact with each other. Sibling jealously is normal, of course, but I can't help but think that my parents should have intervened more vigorously when we were very young. My mother used to just shake her head and say that from the time I was brought home from the hospital, my sister behaved that way and my mom would just shrug her shoulders. I hope that there is zero tolerance for physical aggression directed at a nine month old, from anyone, including his toddler sister.  It may be that getting mad does not help, but if there is a consequence that is meaningful for her (a "time out" chair?) that you could use it the first time she is aggressive toward him and let her know that you will not put up with this even one time.

    Hi there, this is actually a quite mild reaction on your daughter's part to having an "intruder" in her perfect little world she used to be the center of.  It's unusual when siblings get along at such young age. My kids are 12 years apart and still fight.  Recently, my daughter had a playdate with a 7 year old classmate who has an 18 months old sister, and the classmate wrote notes that I got to read after the playdate was over. I was shocked to see they said, "Die little sister! Die! Die! I hate you and hope you will be adopted! You are so dumb and I hate you!"  And so on, for 4 pages. The girl wrote clearly, with good spelling and grammar. I wasn't sure whether to mention this to her parents, but my therapist said this is normal and not to worry about, as long as she doesn't hurt her sister physically.

    As far as how to manage your 3  year old't behavior, the main thing is that both she and the baby are safe.  I have no advice there, and would be curious to see if anyone offers any.  Kind of glad I grew up as an only child. :)

    I have kids with these exact same ages (3 year old son and 9 month old daughter) and we're experiencing very similar things. The book Siblings Without Rivalry was recommended to us and it's been such a good resource. It's helped us avoid comparing our kids or unknowingly pitting them against each other, and it's helped us learn when it's okay to step back and let them manage on their own. We're still figuring this phase out ourselves, but some things that have worked for us include:

    • Telling my son "I know you love your sister and want to play right now, but I can't let you [pinch/grab/push] her like that." then separating them. Or "I know you can't wait to play with her, but she's too little for that right now." Lots of validation that he's a good big brother.
    • If the baby grabs my son's face, I make a bit of a show of saying the same stuff. "I know you love your brother but I can't let you grab his face too roughly!"
    • Explicitly asking my son what he wants. Sometimes he wants special time with me or my husband. Sometimes he really just wants to hug the baby, and I'll help him hug her in a way that's safe. Sometimes he just wants to be wild and we'll try to get his energy out another way.

         We tend to want to protect the youngest children, since they are more helpless.  Sybling jealousy is a universal phenomenon, but it gets out of control. Maybe a good tactic is to give the older child extra attention.   It is hard not to get angry, but punishment is rarely helpful.  Often children grow out of these tough situations.  To give extra times of lots of love to the older child without the younger one present, if that is possible also works.

    This is a hard thing to deal with (although I think normal), and it's easy to worry this relationship you hope will be a rock is just going to crumble. My 3.5-year-old son gets the same way with his 10-month-old sister. Sometimes we call him the Whirling Dervish. If he is with his grandparents, they comment on what a cooperative, delightful child he was. As soon as I arrive with his sister to pick him up, he goes wild and slightly aggressive, toward both me and his sister - my parents have commented on the dramatic nature of the about-face in behavior.

    I have done a few things to attempt to preserve the sibling relationship, and I'm not going to say they're a complete antidote, but my goal is to have everyone survive with some of the tender feelings intact, until the baby is big enough to be fun to play with and things can improve (hopefully). 

    1) I make sure my son knows that he comes first sometimes, and he is ALWAYS in my heart. Sometimes this means letting the baby cry in a safe space for a little while while we finish our cuddle or book. I tell my son how much I'm going to miss him when he is away at school/playdates/grandparents. I tell him explicitly that I love him - even when I'm mad, or shopping etc. When I'm holding his sister and talking to her, I might tell her how much I love her brother, within earshot of him so he knows I'm thinking of him even when I'm with her.

    2) Beyond the major safety concerns (pulling her over while on a very hard surface, grabbing around the neck, etc), I try to let the baby lead the physical interactions, as she is pretty clear about her limits. She actually seems to really like to mix it up - she'll usually crawl right back into the fray when I try to "rescue" her. I coach my son to be the one to watch her face and listen to her voice to determine what is okay. And to make the repair (check on her, give her a kiss, help her up, hold still while she rights herself, etc.) as needed. My hope is that this will enhance his empathy and emotional awareness in general. I noticed early on that I would often be yelling at my son to be gentle, while my daughter was giggling away - which felt like it undermined my position. Even when it's a safety concern, I am clear that the behavior is not allowed because it makes MOMMY anxious and worried, so that the blame can be put at the feet of the appropriate family member. I also accept my son's expression of his mad feelings without being super threatening, so he doesn't feel like he has to displace it onto an "easier" target (although I probably went a little too far on that one and now we are having some time outs when we threaten others' bodies verbally, in anger - live and learn).

    3) I point out how much she delights in him. She thinks he's the bees knees, and thankfully giggles at his antics pretty reliably, so he does get a lot of reinforcement from her. He takes pride in making her chuckle. Sometimes, when he's not in the mood to hear it, this doesn't do much, but I think it's really important to the underlying relationship, and I think he knows in his bones she idealizes him already, even through the frustrations and squabbles.

    4) We've also watched and talked about some Daniel Tiger episodes about interacting with baby siblings - the episode in which Daniel and his friends are playing restaurant and baby Margaret disrupts the game is a great one.

    Good luck!

    Forget patience! One warning and then timeout! Discipline is necessary. Also, spend some special time alone with the older child when the baby is sleeping or with someone else. 

Archived Q&A and Reviews


Nightly battles with 4-year-old over nursing baby

September 2006

I'm posting this question for my cousin, who is now dealing with nightly battles with her almost-4-year-old. Her little girl wants to sleep in her parents' bed now that her new (nursing) sister is allowed to. Apparently she's always loved her own bed and has never expressed a desire to sleep with her parents before. They have tried the group family sleeping arrangement and it's not working out. I did see some books recommended in the archives on preparing a sibling for a new baby, but I didn't see any specific advice from anyone who has dealt with a similar problem to this one. Does anyone have any tips or encouragment? How can my cousin make this transition easier for her little girl? Thanks for your help. Theresa

We had some similar issues with our then 2.5 YO when the new baby came. There were three things we did that helped. First, we got a co-sleeper for the newborn so that we could actually let the older one sleep in the bed too sometimes. I understand why it feels unfair and kind of like a slight to the older one that the baby gets all this snuggle time that the older one doesn't. So, I wanted to indulge it a little. When that got too uncomfortable, we put a litttle mattress at the foot of our bed. That way, when the newborn went in the co-sleeper, the older one slept at the foot of our bed in her own ''co-sleeper'' so she felt like she was being treated the same. Finally, we went with the chart and reward system to keep her in her room but that only helped for about a week. The only thing that really worked was when the baby finally moved into her own room at about 3 months. Hope this helps
Still Sleep Deprived 2 Years Later

3 year old really dislikes 7 month old brother

March 2006

Oh, I am at my wits end over here and need help! My daughter, who will be three in April, absolutely does not like her 7 month-old brother. She was never excited about having a baby brother in the first place, and things have not changed since he was born. I thought that perhaps once he grew up a little and went from a crying infant to more of a person, she would change her mind, but so far, nothing. He is siting up, and is starting to crawl, but this has not changed her feelings towards him one bit.

She thinks he is loud and weird, and I'm sure he is, to her.

We have read ''Siblings Without Rivalry'' and try to follow their advice; we have never tried to force any kind of sibling relationship on our daughter. We let her have her feelings and remain neutral about her comments (for example, if she says, ''I don't want him to touch me!'' we might say, ''Okay, you don't want him to touch you.'' Or if she says, ''He can't play with the blocks!'' we say, ''Those blocks belong to the family. If you would like to go into your own room and play with your toys, you can. However, if you want to play with the blocks, you need to share with your brother.'')

The baby is so happy and is usually in a good mood. It just is so hard to see her visibly recoil from him. Lately, a friend remarked that it seemed like a lot of effort for her to ignore him as much as she does...more effort than just talking to him or even looking in his direction.

More info: our daughter is in preschool 5 mornings a week, and really enjoys it. I pick her up after lunch and right before her nap, then the three of us spend the afternoons together.

What should I do differently? Will this change? I need perspective and suggestions. I had such a great friendship with my brother, and this just breaks my heart. Thanks so much.

--At my wits end

My kids are spaced about the same distance as you and they really didn't want to have anythig to do with each other until after the little one was about 18 months. Plus, three year olds like to do their own thing. When they are closer to five, they want to have someone to play with--this is when a little sibling comes in handy (even if they are kind of annoying, sometimes:))

When the babay was 18 months, they started playing together and now play very well about 85 percent of the time. Sure, they still fight, but on the whole I am so glad to have both of them. They are both boys and share a room (and all the toys in it). mom of 2

My older son had a really hard time accepting his brother for the first year. They are now two and four and they're finally playing together and the older is usually very sweet with his brother. I'm totally amazed that they laugh together and actually have loving feelings for one another because, like you, I was really upset when my older son constantly told his brother to go away, or pretended to shoot him, or would physically hurt him. Their relationship isn't perfect but it's so much better now that my younger one is old enough to talk and engage in reciprocal play. I'm sure their relationship will ebb and flow but now I know that they will mostly be great friends. It gets better!

Hi-- I don't think this is uncommon. I do think you shouldn't expect her to ''change her mind about him.'' In a similar situation, we spent our energy simply trying to enforce safe and respectful behavior between sibs, and felt lucky if they could be pleasant or at least neutral towards each other, instead of making everyone tense and angry.

My 3.5 yr old son was jealous of his little sister before she even arrived. He finally decided to let go of it a few months ago (he's now 15). It's been awful for her her whole life to have a mean, teasing older brother, especially since she was predisposed to adore him. I give a lot of credit to a family counselor who suggested last year that he was in a great position to be a mentor to her on social and school stuff-- which gave him a different picture of himself behaving towards her, now that she's a tween. He doesn't do it much, but anything's an improvement.

Of course, now that we don't have to intervene in his mean teasing, we're dealing with her unpleasant coping behaviors that have become habits.

I've been on both sides of this, since my older brother was jealous of me from day one and constantly took it out on me until we were adult, while I had a marvelous closeness with my younger brother. I've decided it's a temperament thing. Some older sibs are nurturing, some are not. Good luck. anonymous

Does your 3 yo really need a nap? My 3 yo's never napped during the day. Helps make bedtime easier, at the least. Perhaps you can do 'big girl' things with your daughter when the baby naps. May help with her own definitions of role: '' The 'baby' sleeps in the day; I'm big so can play with my kid toys and help Mommy with chores.''

Could it be that what your daughter really misses is having you to herself? I know it's hard with 2 kids, but maybe you could make some time to spend just with her on a regular basis, if you're not already. It really sounds like you're doing all the right things. I have two girls who are about the same distance apart and the older one used to complain horribly about the younger one. Now they're 16 and 13 and I think they're much more likely to complain about me! Patty

I had this problem. I had to watch #1 constantly and hold my arm protectively. He used to bite the baby!! I would find teeth marks!

I think that the hardest part about having a second child is the loss of intimacy with the first.

So, pay as much attention to her as you can. Assure her a lot. My older one still has a bit of ''he gets to be with you'' but they are best friends and play really well unless they are tired.

You are doing really well. It gets easier and better between them when they can talk. And try to have as much one on one time as you can with #1. And ditch 'em once and a while and get a pedicure or massage for you. just going alone for groceries is a luxury at this point!

Wishing you well

3-year-old hates her baby brother

November 2005

I would really appreciate some advice about what to do with older sibling (3 years old) who ''hates'' younger brother (4 months old). She is constantly saying that she wants him to go away or that she wants to move far away. She's been hostile toward us and him especially when he's getting any kind of attention. We really feel that we're understanding and compassionate parents who give her equal time with both of us (grandparents help out quite a bit), but no matter what we do she is still angry. We feel bad for her, her brother and us. Any suggestions? Books we should read? Thanks so much!! (By the way, I looked for archived advice on this issue thinking I would find tons, but couldn't find any, maybe the moderator can direct me)
Worried Mama

This isn't great advice but but we dealt with the same problem. Our daughters are 3.5 years apart and that first year was hell. I began wondering if having 2 kids was a big mistake. Our older daughter was difficult with us and downright mean to her baby sister. It was a very loooong year. But, after the first year, our oldest began Kindergarten and things began to change - dramatically. She's now a great big sister and quite attentive to her little sister. I'm not quite sure what changed but maybe it was maturity or that she could begin to interact with that 'thing' she used to dislike so much. We aren't sure. It is now fun to watch the two of them play and truly enjoy one another's company. I hope this happens for you as well. Hang it there ! got 2 too

I've recently read Siblings Without Rivalry and was so impressed that i bought copies for several of my friends. its a fast, easy read and it makes a lot of sense. good luck

Is this normal sibling jealousy? (4yo and baby)

June 2004

My four year old son has been exhibiting intentionally difficult and provocative behavior in the past few weeks. He became a big brother for the first time about 3 months ago. His behavior at first was surprisingly good. In the past few weeks, however, his behavior has become increasingly negative and unmanagable. He purposefully scratches, hits and squeezes the baby whenever he can, slaps me, tries to ram the baby's bottle into his mouth, and jumps on the sofa next to me and pushes the baby's head while I'm trying to breastfeed. When the baby's sleeping, he intentionally slams the doors as loudly as he can to wake the baby up. He also screams constantly -- sometimes because he's having a meltdown, but often just for fun. Today he came home from preschool, walked over to the coffee table and intentionally threw all the books and magazines onto the floor. Later he threw yogurt all over the kitchen walls and my computer ''just for fun''. He sasses me and tells me repeatedly that he hates me. Sometimes he says this in a teasing voice and other times in a serious or hurtful tone. If I tell him ''no'' about anything, he says I don't love him anymore. He's in a generally negative mood and doesn't want to do anything; e.g., doesn't want to go to school, doesn't want to go to gymnastics class, doesn't want to have a playdate. My son always exhibited some difficult behavior, but nothing like what we've seen in the past few weeks. This behavior has been very disruptive for the whole family -- the baby is having trouble eating and sleeping, and my husband and I are worried sick about what to do. I have tried to implement the tools I read about introducing children to new siblings -- e.g., prepare the child several months in advance, read lots of books on the subject, acknowledge his feelings of jealousy, try to make one-on-one time for him, go out of the way to make his feel special, etc.-- but these approaches don't seem to be working. My husband and I are starting to see a family therapist about these issues. After listening to what's going on with my son, the therapist said he is angry, exhibits a lack of self-control and the family needs to be in long-term therapy to figure out how we got into this situation. I wonder, however, if my son's behavior is just normal sibling jealousy. If so, how long should I expect this to go on and how did you deal with it? Thanks for any input.
Exhausted and concerned mom

You don't mention that you have tried any form of discipline. Not having any limits can make kids feel anxious and even angry. Having boundaries is reassuring; too much power is scary for kids. anon

My daughter who was three at time my son was born exhibited very similar behavior. We went to see Meg Zweiback who helped come up with parenting strategies to deal with my daughter's anger and need for boundaries. We saw her for 2 or 3 months and it really helped. It turns out that my daughter was really angry with us, not her little brother. She is now 4 and still has occasional issues with hurting her brother, but now that we effectively deal with it, it is not a family crisis. I hightly recommend Meg. Look her up in the book. She works out of her Oakland home.

Whether it's jealousy or not, it is obvious that your child wants your attention and I don't see anything wrong with that whatsoever. For 3 months your child has experienced that attention has been shifted away from him with no end in sight. (No wonder he rejects school, classes and playdates - he wants more time with you, not less). So, if he can't get enough the good way, he nows sees it work when he behaves badly, and more instantly when he behaves out of control. Bad attention is better than no attention and for your son this may even seem somewhat of an improvement, although a very sad one, compared to the times before the baby. The problem is mostly felt by you - the parents.

To me there is only one obvious cure: Both you and your husband need to take turns spending scheduled 1:1 quality time with your 4-year old alone without the baby and outside the house, if possible. By now you may lost some desire to be with him, because of his bad behavior. If you schedule a firm 30 minutes each day with your child that he can count on no matter what, I bet you'll see a positive change within the first week. During these 30 minutes you do exactly what your child wants to do (i.e. play along with his toys/games)and nothing else. Do not try to get something done for the house at the same time. This is about undivided attention, not multi-tasking. Kids very well feel the difference. (It's very helpful to have a good selection of appealing arts & crafts activities and board games on hand. Between the ages 4-7, of course, you let your child go first and let him win. Older than 7, they don't mind lo! sing a few.). If we should spend 30 minutes daily listening to our spouses (and they to us) to keep our marriages alive and well, I'm very sure our kids need and deserve the same. Instead of taking more private time away from your child and giving it to a therapist, I'd try giving the time to the child first and see if things improve that way.