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How to help your older child play safe with baby

Supporting a positive sibling relationship while also keeping a new baby safe is a common parenting challenge. An older sibling’s love can be overwhelming to baby, and the older sibling’s type of play is not always safe. Toddlers and preschoolers are still very much learning about body self-management, impulse control and boundaries. With your help, their developmental work will lead to higher levels of emotional intelligence that will serve them well for the rest of their lives. Remember: As you guide your child, “Don’t!” and “Stop that!” will be less effective. Instead, demonstrate and describe what she CAN do.  

Body Self-management

  • For many young children the ability to stop or to understand the strength of their muscles is not yet fully integrated—unlike an adult who is quickly able to change how firmly to hold an item or squirming child.
  • Watch your child’s ability to adapt in other settings, such as the library and playground. To help her gain better control you can play games that have her practice different speeds and you can “teach touch” so she can feel, understand and practice “gentle.”
  • And, always note for her when you see her remembering to do this well with her friends and her little sibling.

Impulse control

  • Impulse control is a life long journey (ask anyone faced with fresh baked goods brought by well-intentioned colleagues.) When he “accidentally” knocks over or bumps the baby this is an impulse that was not controlled. If you were to ask him why (and please do not do this) his answer is very likely to be “I felt like it” or “I don’t know why” both of which reflect the impulse and the unregulated body.
  • To help him, report what you see, engage his problem-solving skills and set an action plan (that if possible offers him a choice). “I see a boy who didn’t use her big muscles in a safe way. Is this a time you can be by baby without bumping or do you need to play on the other side of the room?” 
  • If the baby is crying because of his action, make that connection for him. “See brother’s face. Hear his crying. That bump wasn’t fun for him.” (This is very important in building awareness of his impact on others). Again, invite him to problem solve:  “What can you do to make it better?  How can you play with him so that both of you can have fun?”
  • If it happens again soon after: “It looks like this is a morning when it’s too hard for you to be by brother. I’ll play with him and you can bring your toys to the other side of the room. You can practice again after snack time.”


  • What better example of undeveloped respect for boundaries than this: “She often crowds the baby, covers him with toys?” As the parent, you are the most important coach for boundaries that she will ever have. At other times you will help her understand her own personal boundaries so that if, for instance, someone is tickling her and she doesn’t want it, you will affirm for her her own boundaries and insist they stop.
  • Your quiet and firm insistence that she “read” her brother’s cues and respects them is a huge gift to both of them. This is, of course, first for his safety (“Too many toys by his face make it hard for him to breathe”); Second, for his opportunity to play (“Too many toys are hard for him to manage. When he is big like you he will be able to play with more things at a time”); But also for her understanding of boundaries (“He will use his body to try to tell you the best ways to play with him”).
  • Become aware of signals you give to her about the nature of boundaries. Do you ask if she wants your help or do you very quickly step in? If the baby reaches for your food do you just hand it to him without verbally signaling that you are offering one of Momma’s?  Do you use ownership language that reinforces the understanding of boundaries? Ex: “He wants to see your doll.  Is this a time you can show him how you play with it?”

Again, there is so much in our interactions with siblings that are ultimate life skills. You and your children are called to practice these skills every day, multiple times a day. Right now they need you near for most of their interactions.  As your oldest grows and becomes verbal their skill development will take some of the pressure off your shoulders.  In the interim, take good care of yourself.


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