When my second daughter, Ruby, was born, I was worried that her 5-year-old sister, Ella, would manhandle her, make her cry, or, heaven forbid, wake her from a nap. But I should have been arranging for more together time. "Research shows that having an older sibling around -- someone with advanced language, cognition, imagination, and play skills -- can offer a lot of benefits to a baby," says Sarah Berger, Ph.D., associate professor of psychology at the College of Staten Island, in New York. We'll tell you exactly what brotherly (or sisterly) love can do.
Your Baby May Move Sooner In one study, Dr. Berger found that more than 60 percent of second kids walked earlier than their older siblings. The reason? Babies often learn by watching. Plus, older siblings make effective coaches. E. G. Sebastian, a father of three from Beaufort, South Carolina, says his youngest started walking at 8 months because her older sister and brother, then ages 12 and 10, assisted her literally every step of the way.
Your Baby Gets More Attention It's the birth-order predicament: A firstborn naturally gets more of his parents' undivided time and focus than other siblings do, so parents worry and often feel guilty about shortchanging the next child. But don't forget: The baby also gets doted on by his big sister or brother. "I realized that my second child was getting lots of attention from this whole other, exciting little person my firstborn didn't have around," says Jennifer Bingham Hull, a mother of two girls and author of Beyond One: Growing a Family and Getting a Life.
Your Baby Learns to Calm Herself Don't worry if she has to fuss for a few minutes while you grab your older kid's lunch. It's actually a good lesson in patience and she'll be more likely to learn to self-soothe, which will make her more resilient in the long run.
Your Baby Has a Translator
If your little one needs a fresh diaper, your toddler will often be the first to let you know. "Older siblings are very attuned to the baby's needs, so they'll tell you, 'The baby is tired! The baby wants his blankie,'?" says psychologist Eileen Kennedy-Moore, Ph.D., author of What About Me?: Get Your Parents' Attention (Without Hitting Your Sister). That's partly because your eldest genuinely loves and wants to help her little brother, but it's also self-interest: She wants him to stop crying! As long as your older child doesn't keep your little one from speaking up for himself later on, having another little expert around the house can help your baby get what he needs faster.
Your Baby Has More Chances to Learn Even simple games like peekaboo and toss-the-ball can boost brainpower, and with a willing older sibling around, your baby gets more time to practice. Also, babies pay attention to what interests them, and since older siblings tend to be louder, more active, and more unpredictable than parents, they're always fascinating to watch, says Dr. Kennedy-Moore.
Your Baby Becomes More Imaginative All babies learn by imitating other people, but they may particularly love to copycat older kids. A recent study showed that 1-year-olds with older siblings mimic 50 percent of their behaviors. That's especially true with pretend play. According to coauthor Rachel Barr, Ph.D., associate professor of psychology at Georgetown University, little siblings can become sophisticated at make-believe because their older siblings give them plenty of practice.
Your Baby Has Fun! Sure, babies like to play with their parents, but older siblings offer their own special brand of entertainment. "My 8-month-old, Keagan, loves his three older sisters," says Angela Killinger, of Chantilly, Virginia. "They put on shows for him, sing him songs, and feed him his little snacks." All that playtime will keep your baby occupied and give you a breather when you need it.
Originally published in the September 2010 issue of Parents magazine.