March 21, 2011— -- From watching "The Brady Bunch," it's clear to see that the eldest girl, Marsha, gets the most attention. But according to a new study, she also might get the most allergies.
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According to a new study, older children are more likely to suffer from food allergies than their younger siblings. The results indicate the "birth order effect" occurs specifically in food allergies, as compared with other types of allergies.
Among study participants, the prevalence of food allergies was 4 percent in firstborn children, 3.5 percent in second-born children, and 2.6 percent in those born later.
Kara Corridan, the Health Editor at Parents magazine, said the study is too preliminary to get "too excited about this." It may be reassuring to parents whose first child has an allergy.
For parents, raising a child with a food allergy puts them "in a club they really don't want to be a part of," Corridan said. Food allergies can sometimes be life-threatening, and parents may have to monitor everything their child eats and touches in all environments. "Even if there's a small fraction of a chance that younger children don't have [food allergies], that would be great," she said.
Firstborns were also more likely to have allergic rhinitis and conjunctivitis -- conditions that affect the nose and mouth, respectively -- than their younger siblings.
The study's authors say that multiple pregnancies may cause changes in the womb that help build the immune systems of the second and third children. Another contributing factor may be the "hygiene hypothesis:" in preparing for their firstborn to come home, parents may hyper-sterilize their environments. By the time babies 2 and 3 come around, there are more germs, and the younger siblings may develop stronger immune systems.
"The more you are exposed to an allergen, the more likely it is you'll be immune to it," Corridan said. The connection between birth order and allergies had been established by earlier studies, she said, but this study is the first that breaks the connection down by allergic condition.
Birth order does not seem to affect a child's likelihood to develop asthma or atopic dermatitis, a type of eczema.
The study surveyed 13,000 children ages 7 to 15. The researchers compared the incidence of each allergic disease with birth order. The survey also asked parents whether their children experienced wheezing, eczema or food allergies before age 1 -- and researchers saw the same trend: the prevalence of allergies was higher in firstborn children.
Birth Order Can Be An Indicator For Behavioral Characteristics
The findings were presented at the Annual Meeting of the American Academy of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology in San Francisco on March 20.
The birth order effect has been studied in several other areas of children's lives; literature has indicated firstborns excel at school and science, while younger siblings tend to be more exploratory and take more risks.
Dr. Frank Sulloway, a visiting scholar at the University of California, Berkeley, has studied the birth order effect. He said examining children's behavior compared with their birth order opens up the issue of family niches and family dynamics.
"When the firstborn comes along, there are no younger siblings and they've got 100 percent of parental attention," he said. "It seems to be reflected not only in IQ differences ... but firstborns essentially do things that the parents value."
So it makes sense that firstborns score 3 points higher than their younger siblings on IQ tests. Twenty-one of the first 23 American astronauts to fly in space were firstborn, along with a disproportionate number of our nation's presidents and CEOs.
"The good story about younger siblings is they diversify in other ways," Sulloway said. "Younger siblings are always looking for alternative niches to explore and to exploit as a way of getting back some of that parental investment and attention they may have otherwise lost."
While more Nobel Prize winners for science are firstborns, more winners of the Nobel Prize for literature are younger siblings, Sulloway said. Younger siblings are also 50 percent more likely to play dangerous sports.
Sulloway said it's important to keep in mind that most birth order effects are "fairly modest in size," and that there are other contributing factors that influence human behavior and personality development.
"You just have to keep in mind that there are a lot of different things that are influencing behavior, and birth order is just one player in that whole complex process of how we become who we become," Sulloway said."