An old friend once told me: “With your firstborn, you do everything by the book. You rush to sanitize every bottle and every pacifier. With your second child, you start to let that go. By the time you have a third, you let them eat dirt.”
In our family, my firstborn is more tightly wound while my youngest is fairly easygoing. My oldest has always been more analytical in nature. He tends to be more anxious and more reserved. On the other hand, my youngest is more outgoing and more go-with-the-flow.
And it has been that way from day one. My little guy will go up to any kid of any age to play with him. My oldest would never have done that. He would have stuck near me and agonized over whether to approach the other children. My youngest will walk up to any adult he recognizes and start a conversation. My oldest would never have done that either.
Although every rule has its exception, most of my friends agree that their children are similar. And many parents will say that the youngest child simply “has to be” more flexible. From the very start younger children have to go with everyone else’s schedules in the family, napping in cars instead of cribs and eating on the go while their older sibling is at an activity.
But what’s the deal behind these tendencies, particularly the anxiety our first-borns usually possess? Is it nature — or is it nurture?
According to a new study, we may just be the culprits of our own firstborn’s stress. Not only do babies feel their mother’s stress, but they actually show corresponding physiological changes. Their heart rates increase to be in line with their mothers’, so even as babies they are receiving our secondhand stress.
What stress, you say? You loved being a new mom and cuddling your baby, you say. Of course, you did.
Now, let me ask you this. Were you more nervous with your firstborn or your second (or third) child? When something did not seem right, did you rush to call your mother or the doctor or did you look up the symptoms in a book? I am guessing that it is probable. This was your first baby, after all. It takes a bit of time to learn the ropes.
Throughout our lives we can feel secondhand stress, that tension you feel around someone who consistently raises your blood pressure level. As soon as your child is in your arms, that baby is picking up on bodily responses accompanying your emotional state, including anxiety and stress.
If we are stressing out our firstborn babies, what are we to do? I am not a psychologist, but my guess would be that parents who are feeling anxious may want to calm themselves down before picking up their babies, if possible. Then again, my oldest is 10, so maybe it is a little too late for him.
Believe it or not, researchers actually have mixed feelings about whether there truly are measurable difference among children based on birth order. But with this new research, I will venture to bet that nurturing plays a bigger role than we may have realized.
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