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Parenting: Older Child vs Younger Sibling – Who Comes First?

I had a discussion with a friend quite some time ago about how we would manage our attention between the second baby and our first child.  We both agreed that it would be good to have help and I remember saying that I would get the help to manage the older child while I handled the baby.  My reasoning was that the older child, being older, would have had lots more bonding sessions with me and that it was only fair that I devote more time to the baby to cement the same bond.  Back then, I only had Gavin so the discussion was all in theory.

Recently I mentioned to my MIL that I find Gareth startling very easily.  I didn’t remember Gavin startling quite as much when he was a baby.  The sound of hubby clearing his throat or a chair being dragged across the floor can startle Gareth.  My MIL commented that I carried Gavin a lot more than I do Gareth.  Upon reflection, I realise the disparity in the way I’ve been handling Gareth compared to Gavin.  If both boys cry for attention at the same time, I find myself handling Gavin and panning Gareth off to someone else.  Of course the reason for this is that Gareth is easier to handle and it seems to make sense for me to handle the more difficult child.  However, it makes Gareth appear like the adopted the child whom I care less about even though that isn’t true.

When Gavin was Gareth’s age, I would drop everything and tend to him the moment he uttered a sound.  These days, I find myself allowing Gareth to fuss a little and sometimes allowing him to escalate to a cry before I tend to him.  Is this second child syndrome?  It’s not that I love Gareth any less – I adore him, but I also feel for Gavin who is going through an extremely rough period because he is no longer in the lime light.  He is the older, “less cute” child (let’s face it, no child, no matter how adorable is able to compete against a baby) who throws frequent tantrums and gets on everyone’s nerves with his whining and very unattractive attempts to behave like a baby.  When I see how gaga everyone goes over Gareth and how desperate Gavin is to win over their attention, it breaks my heart.

Although Gareth is also a high needs baby, I find him somewhat more agreeable than Gavin was at his age.  He’ll lie down by himself for a while before he starts to fuss for attention and because of that, I often leave him on his own to give Gavin more attention.  In a way, because he is less demanding than Gavin was at this age, he gets less attention.  As they say, “the squeaky wheel gets the oil”.

Now that I’ve noted how often Gareth startles and the fact that he seems to wake up howling a lot more these days, I’ve been trying to reassess the situation.  Although Gareth is a big baby – above average size – he is, by definition, a preemie.  He was born five days early.  I wonder what impact this has on him – the fact that he was forced out of the womb five days early?

Birth is a traumatic experience for any baby but do certain things make it worse?  For instance, being induced?  Being removed by caesarean section?  Which is worse?  Induction, caesarean section or being forced out before the actual due date?  Perhaps all this is irrelevant.

I’ve been thinking about all of this because of what I read about in “Bright from the Start” when author Jill Stamm shared her story about her first born – Jenny – who was born four months premature.  Jenny experienced a lot of trauma as a newborn – trauma that many people thought would not affect her because she was only a baby and they assumed she would not be able to remember.  Science now shows that even though babies cannot remember such trauma, they are still affected by it in ways they cannot articulate when they grow older.  Even though Jenny, who was in her thirties when the book “Bright from the Start” was written, grew up to be a sweet, chatty person, she could still turn in a moment into a tense, hypervigilant, and frightened soul because of the trauma she suffered as a baby.

Just because babies cannot yet tell us what they feel does not mean they do not suffer from stress and trauma.  Just because they are babies and “cannot remember”, doesn’t mean there are no long term effects of this stress and trauma either.

In the scope of all of this, one would assume that between the older child and the baby, the baby has to come first because the baby is more vulnerable to stress and emotional trauma compared to the older child.  That is not to say that the older child is not susceptible, but at least an older child can be later counseled and managed appropriately.

I’m afraid that because Gareth is a baby and unable to fight for attention, I haven’t given him quite as much attention as he would normally have had without a more demanding older brother.  There is a tendency to assume that because he is a baby, he won’t remember it.  But as I mentioned earlier, although babies cannot recall the way we do, that doesn’t mean there are no long lasting effects.  Just what exactly the effects are, we cannot say.  Each child is a unique individual who is affected differently.

Anyway, that’s enough about my thoughts.  I’d like to know what you think.

Do you have more than one child?  What is the age gap between them?  How do you manage your attention between your children?  If both are crying, who do you attend to?  What is your rationale for what you do?

Obviously there is no right or wrong way of dealing with this but I still think it is beneficial to hear the perspectives of other parents on this subject.


Published by Shen-Li

SHEN-LI LEE is the author of “Brainchild: Secrets to Unlocking Your Child’s Potential”. She is also the founder of (a website on parenting, education, child development) and (a website on Right Brain Education, cognitive development, and maximising potentials). In her spare time, she blogs on Forty, Fit & Fed, and Back to Basics.

2 thoughts on “Parenting: Older Child vs Younger Sibling – Who Comes First?

  1. I’m pregnant with my second, and they will be 25 months apart. Obviously, I’m not dealing with this yet, but I read your post with interest.

    I have wondered how much my daughter can “remember,” in some sense, about her birth. I was in labor for three days, which was much harder on me than on her. The midwives were shocked at how steady her heartbeat was and that nothing seemed to bother her at all! But then we made the cesarean decision, which was necessary (her head was tilted and she wouldn’t budge) but I think easier on me than on her.

    She’s incredibly happy and laid back. Strangers are always stopping to ask if she is that smiley all the time, and she is! But she can also be very clingy. She pretty much nursed 24/7 for the first four or five months of life!

    But what really made me think of it was that I’ve taken her with me to my appointments for this pregnancy, and any time I lie on the doctor’s table for an exam, ultrasound, or anything, she SCREAMS. My happy, laid-back child goes BERSERK. My ultrasound tech said she has seen that in children who have spent time in the hospital and asked if my daughter had any bad experience like that. She hasn’t been in a hospital since she was 2 days old! I wonder….

    Of course, this is a sample size of one, so how much can we really know from that?


  2. Bright from the Start is a very interesting book. Jill Stamm talks a lot about what science has discovered about the infant brain. Babies absorb and retain a lot more information than we realise. I’m inclined to agree that it is your daughter’s birth experience in the hospital that made her react that way.


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