By: T. Berry Brazelton, M.D., and Joshua Sparrow, M.D.

Q. I have an only child. What’s your best advice for raising one?

A. Raising an only child brings special challenges and rewards.

An only child is always a “first child.” Parents may feel that no other child can compare. But they may also be at a loss because they don’t have the experience with other children to help them understand this one.

In a larger family, a child must learn to share – and fight to hold on to what is his, right from the start. An only child needn’t share his parents.

So don’t shower him with excessive praise, rewards and attention. He doesn’t benefit from having too much of everything just because he’s the focus.

Siblings also help to spread out a parent’s protective instincts. Go easy on hovering. Like all children, “onlies” need to try things out for themselves, fail (temporarily), get upset, pick themselves up and try again. Otherwise they may become overly dependent on their parents and lack the self-reliance to separate from them.

If your child is upset, wait a few moments before rushing in to soothe her. See if she can settle herself. Thus she learns to handle her strong feelings. Then she’ll know she can count on herself rather than her parents.

Siblings teach, inspire and entertain one another. Research has shown that babies as young as 7 months of age study each other carefully and respond to each other’s facial expressions, gestures, coos and cries.

Therefore, put extra effort into introducing your only child to other children. Close friends are especially important. Make regular play dates. Whenever possible, let your child get to know her cousins, or the children of your closest friends, to give her the feeling of belonging to a family or community.

Some parents of only children express the concern that their kids miss out on “just being kids” and “grow up too soon” because they are surrounded by adults.

But if parents balance adult-like conversations and expectations by paying close attention to their only child’s cues, they will reinforce the child’s playful side – and rediscover, enjoy and share their own.

Parents of only children find deep satisfaction in the close relationships they share. And only children tell us that they “turned out just fine” and that they treasure the families and childhood memories they have. They speak of connecting with plenty of other children in their extended families, neighborhoods and schools.

Whatever the challenges of being an only child (or raising one), that child will feel like No. 1 from the start, and forever.

Responses to questions are not intended to constitute or to take the place of medical or psychiatric evaluation, diagnosis or treatment. If you have a question about your child’s health or well-being, consult your child’s health-care provider.

Dr. Brazelton, prior to his passing, was the founder and head of the Brazelton Touchpoints Center, which promotes and supports community initiatives that are collaborative, strength-based, prevention-focused sources of support for families raising children in our increasingly stressful world. Dr. Sparrow, a child psychiatrist, is currently the Director of the Brazelton Touchpoints Center. Learn more about the Center at www.touchpoints.org.

Reprinted with permission from the authors.