Birth order & my baby

NATHAN WALLIS explains that those all-important ‘first 1000 days’ are different, significantly so, for firstborns and later babies. By KATE BARBER

The ‘birth order effect’ fascinates us. We talk authoritatively about the traits of firstborns or middle children or ‘the baby of the family’, especially when we recognise these typologies playing out in our own kids. ‘Firsts’ are responsible, conscientious, and tend to be perfectionists; while ‘seconds’ are more chilled out, fun and mischievous. Or so the conversations go…  

Yet, despite numerous studies into ‘the birth order effect’, these have not provided definitive conclusions about how your child’s place in the family influences their development, says Nathan. 

It boils down to the fact that all of the circumstances into which we are born shape the development of our personality. 

While there is a tendency to overplay the ‘birth order effect’ when analysing and comparing our kids, there is a significant change in the family dynamic for the first baby compared to a younger sibling. Put simply: not-firstborns arrive in the world to find that their sibling/s got here first. And there are other differences to family life: the house is noisier and messier; Mum is busier and more tired; schedules have been relaxed or discarded altogether. 

Nathan emphasises that those first 1000 days are particularly significant because it’s during this time that “a baby gathers data to see what sort of brain they will need for life”. 

Essentially, the development of the brain is determined through a baby’s early interactions, in particular, within ‘the dyad’, that is, the relationship with the most responsive person, Nathan says. The amount of time you spend in your baby’s face, connecting with their eyes and talking to them (about anything), the better. 

The research does reveal that firstborn children tend to gain more qualifications and earn more money at 32 years old, says Nathan. This, he says, comes down to the quantity of the interactions they had in their first 1000 days of life, and not because they got the best ‘brainy’ genes.

The research also reveals that middle children are overrepresented in helping professions. We can speculate that this is because “they developed better social skills from a childhood of dealing with authority, and being the authority,” says Nathan. 

From my own experience, after a few years of fogginess, I now feel able to look back on those crucial early days and months with my third baby, and I see how it was different for me and for her. Despite my intentions, I definitely didn’t spend as much time ‘in her face’, smiling and chatting. On the other hand, we had moved back to North Canterbury from Auckland, so we were surrounded by family in a way we weren’t when my first two girls were born. 

In those early days, my youngest napped in the car, in the pram, or on me, or not at all. She was introduced to ‘Peppa Pig’ and ‘Frozen’ at a very young age. Her big sisters laughed and screamed; they twirled and leapt off furniture dangerously close to where she lay; they squeezed her and poked her and dropped things on her. 

With my third and final baby, I was determined to savour the moments: to smell her head and breathe her in, to stare into those beautiful blue eyes and chat and sing as much as I could. 

Yet I remember, on several occasions, unceremoniously putting my unsettled newborn on the floor in the hallway when my second yelled, “the poos is coming” – because I remember that avoiding accidents with Number 2s was a number one priority for me at that time. 

When we reflect on the circumstances and relationships that shaped our own babies, particularly in those first few years, we may well intuit why they developed certain traits or strengths: why our eldest child is responsible but bosses the others about; why the younger child is funny, but also cunning… 

Most kids, Nathan says, end up a mixture of different types – they get to be ‘eldests’ or ‘middles’ or ‘youngests’ depending on the relationships around them, and they demonstrate traits associated with each. 

The conversations on birth order, and the reflections they stimulate, are indeed fascinating. But I’m reminded to look for my children’s other strengths – not just the ones commonly attributed to their status as ‘firstborn’, ‘middle’ and ‘baby’.

Sleep safe, my baby

SIDS and Kids New Zealand is dedicated to saving the lives of babies and children during pregnancy, birth, infancy and childhood and supporting bereaved families. The organisation delivers on its vision through world-class research, evidence-based education and bereavement support, and advocacy.

Remind everyone who cares for your child:

  • Sleep baby on their back
  • Keep head and face uncovered
  • Keep baby smoke-free before and after birth
  • Safe sleeping environment night and day
  • Sleep baby in a safe cot in parents’ room.

SIDS and Kids provides a range of safe sleeping education and support services as well as a national 24-hour sudden infant death helpline. 

0800 164 455 / sidsandkids.org.nz