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Ask Dr. Sears: Sibling Gentleness

Q. How do I teach my 4-year-old to be gentle with our 4-month-old twins? He likes to help me with them, but sometimes when he does, he gets a little rough. What can I do?

A. At 4 years old, your son hasn't yet learned to appreciate how fragile tiny babies are, so it's unlikely he's deliberately being rough with them. Here are some tips to help him learn how to gently handle his younger siblings:

Give him a fun job title. Make your son feel special by having him help you change a diaper, pick out clothes for the twins, or even select toys for them. Call him "mommy's helper" or "mommy's assistant."

Role play. Emphasize the protective nature of his big-brother role, especially once your twins start to crawl and walk. Show and tell him: "Be sure to pick up your toys so the babies don't trip over them." In this way, you're teaching him that being an older sibling comes with responsibilities. A fun role that we used to have our older children play was that of doctor: When one of our babies got a "boo-boo," we would say, "Doctor Erin, would you hold Stephen's leg while I put the Band-Aid on?" (My wife and I wonder if this early role-playing had anything to do with the fact that three of our children became doctors and one is halfway through his medical training!) Or, try the comforter role. When the babies are crying, encourage your son to hold and rock them (under supervision, of course).

Emphasize his strongness. Four-year-olds don't realize how strong they are in comparison to tiny babies. Point out his arm muscles: "See how strong you are?" Then compare his muscles with those of his siblings: "The babies haven't grown big muscles yet, so we have to be gentle with them." As you let him help you bathe them, demonstrate how to gently rub the washcloth on their skin and pat them dry. Frequently repeat "Be gentle" or "Nice touches" as you guide his hands over their skin. Show him how strong his neck muscles are and how relatively weak the twins' neck muscles are. Although most babies have good head control by 4 months of age, some still need a bit of head support when being picked up.

Protect the babies. In raising our own eight children, we had the philosophy that safety comes before psychology. If your son shows an episode of roughness that could possibly harm the babies, put him in a time-out with the admonition that he has to spend time thinking about being gentle "because you are so big and strong, and the babies are so tiny."

Fortunately, time is on your side. As the babies grow stronger, they will be able to withstand their older sibling's roughhousing  -- and eventually return a bit of it themselves.