Are first-born children more intelligent? Behind the viral headlines

Despite the snappy headlines, it's not so simple.

how birth order affects intelligence

Parenting multiple children of different ages isn't easy. Your firstborn is going to have different strengths and challenges than your youngest or your middle child—and not just because they are older, but because they are the oldest.

Recently, a 2016 study resurfaced online and went viral. It suggests that first-borns are more intelligent than their younger siblings—but despite the snappy headlines, it's not so simple.

That study, published in The Journal of Human Resources, suggests there is a cognitive gap related to birth order, as younger kids score lower on assessments than their older siblings as early as 12 months old.

The researchers believe that "broad shifts in parental behavior from first to later-born children is a plausible explanation for the observed birth order differences in education and labor market outcomes."

In layman's terms: Parents are often more mindful about pursuing enriching activities the first time around, and we tend to relax as parents (and get busier) by the time our second child is in the picture.

Our younger children will have different early experiences than a first-born but don't feel guilty, mama. There are so many things you can do to boost their brainpower.

Here are a few things to try:

1. Foster a secure attachment

According to the study published in Psychological Science, children who have solid attachments to their primary caregiver at a young age develop better self-control, which leads to better performance in school a decade later.

This doesn't mean you have to wear your baby or co-sleep (unless you want to) it just means you have to try to respond to a distressed child in sensitive, loving and reassuring ways, instead of ignoring or minimizing their problem (which is easy to default to when we're busy).

If we're mindful about responding to our younger kids problems by being present and supportive instead of dismissive, they're more likely to do better academically.

2. Read, read and read some more

There is an overwhelming body of research suggesting that kids who are read to regularly are set up for success. And if you've already got one older kiddo, you're probably already reading a lot. A recent study found kids who are read to five times a day hear more than 1.4 million more words before kindergarten than those who aren't read to, so bring the baby along the next time you're taking the toddler to the library. And if your oldest is old enough, enlist them in reading some stories to the younger ones.

3. Sing to your little ones

This is another one your older child can totally help with. Studies show that singing to infants is comforting (to both the baby and us) and benefit an infant's cognitive development. Plus, when we're singing to our babies we're not only stimulating their brains with sound waves, we're directing attention at them, which builds a solid attachment and counts as a one-to-one interaction (even if an older sibling is helping us with the song).

4. Sign them up for music lessons

By the time you're a mama of two or three or four, your time is stretched a lot further than it was when you only had one child. So enrolling a younger child in music lessons gives mama a bit of a break and gives them a "thing" of their own.

Plus, research suggests as little as two years of music lessons can boost a child's brain power in areas responsible for decision-making. It gives them more focus and some extra impulse control, which gives them a boost academically.

There are so many things that we as parents can do to close the birth order cognitive gap, but we also have to understand that it's really not holding younger kids back.

While middle children may score as well on a cognitive assessment as a first-born at a year old, studies of middle children have shown that they are actually more likely than their siblings to be successful as adults, and youngest kids are more likely to take risks in their careers and become millionaires.

Bottom line: Despite the alarming viral headlines, your younger kids are capable of being every bit as smart and successful as your first-born, their intelligence might just manifest itself a little differently and a little later in life.

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