Sometimes, a decision that's even tougher to make than "Should we have a child?" is "Should we have another child?" — and if the answer is yes, then the question becomes "When?" Sibling age gaps, AKA birth spacing, is a massive topic of analysis — for economists, sociologists, the World Health Organisation, and most of all, parents, who must strategically weigh factors from finances, to their careers, to the annoying "clock", to the type of relationship they envision for the kids themselves. And then of course, the decision may not be in their hands at all, as it isn't like you can simply pick a date on the calendar and type in "new baby". It's very complex and very personal.
Photo: Dan Harrelson/Flickr
While you can't always choose the when, you can know what might be in store with each age gap. Here are some pros and cons of the different spacing options, as explained by both science and real parents.
Note: The info is generalised and mostly applies to families transitioning from one to two children. Once you have multiple age gaps, things can't be summed up as neatly. Also, when you have children with special needs, that changes things as well. As I mentioned, it's all very complex and very personal.
Less Than a 1.5-Year Gap
The gist: It's the rip-off-the-Band-Aid approach to parenthood. You're already deep in the trenches, so it can make sense to multi-task. There's efficiency and possible savings in this get-it-done plan. (That is, if you're only having two kids.) Blogger The Alpha Parent, who put together an extremely comprehensive, research-backed report on child spacing, writes of having babies close together: "It consolidates the exhausting years that you are in 'baby mode.' You become a well-oil and efficient parenting machine with your conveyor belt of diaper changing, tooth brushing and tandem feeding. (Shared bathwater, anyone?)" It's also — as parents who've done it attest — really, intensely difficult to juggle two mostly-helpless beings at once. "Remember all the crap you had to carry when you had your first baby?" writes Karen Alpert of Baby Sideburns. "Now multiply that times two and add another poop machine to the mix."
- You already have all the baby gear out, and some of it can certainly do double duty. No need to put high chairs, changing tables and cribs in storage for years. Then once you're done with it, you're really done with it.
- The kids may have the same interests, play with the same friends, and watch the same shows, at least in the early years. That makes your life easier.
- You may get to avoid (major) issues of jealousy with your firstborn once the new baby arrives. "Your older child is too young to fully understand what all this means — so he may be less likely to act out or reject the new baby than if he was older," explains What to Expect. "Plus, because he hasn't had mom and dad all to himself for all that long, he may not expect as much attention or preferential treatment."
- You may save money. This can be hard to fathom because hello there multiple tuitions at once, but you can think about bulk strategies — for instance, hiring one nanny for two young kids can be cheaper overall than paying for daycare for two siblings spread out in age.
- Mentally, you are in it. The baby years are a short(ish) phase of your life, and you can compartmentalise them in your brain as such. Once you get a taste of sweet freedom when your kids go off to school, it's tough to go back to newbornland again.
- Your kids may be constant companions and playmates.
- You'll get to do big-kid fun stuff faster — perhaps go on more adventurous trips, stay out later at events, or do more interesting, mentally stimulating activities together.
- A woman's body may not be ready for another baby so quickly. According to a study in the International Journal of Obstetrics and Gynaecology, women who got pregnant within a year of giving birth were twice as likely to have that new baby born prematurely, compared with women who waited at least 18 months. Getting pregnant within six months of a live birth is also associated with an increased risk of premature birth, placental abruption, low birth weight, congenital disorders and schizophrenia.
- Two school tuitions at the same time.
- You may feel like your attention is always divided and you're unable to have a lot of one-on-one time with each child.
- Life may be very stressful for a while. Mothers of twins or close siblings have a higher risk of postnatal depression.
- Your career may take a hit. Forbes says, "Unfortunately for working moms, two closely spaced maternity leaves can rub managers the wrong way."
What a parent says: Avery, a mum of two boys, 16 months apart, says, "The first six month were extremely difficult on me. I had two in diapers, and felt like I just changed butts all day. My oldest was still a baby himself, and had no idea what had happened. It shook his little world, and it was a big adjustment for all of us. I remember nursing my one-month-old and trying to clean up after my 17-month-old. There were days all three of us were crying." She adds, "But it got easier as they got older. They are now very best friends, and have helped and taught each other in ways that I couldn't have as their mother."
1.5- to Two-Year Age Gap
The gist: You haven't completely forgotten the newborn basics, but you've had a little bit of a chance to breathe. Your kids are still close enough in age to share — and fight over — plenty of common interests (toys, the "good spot" on the couch, and attention from their parents).
- A two-year age gap generally lets a mum's body recover between pregnancies.
- The kids will still be able to grow up in the same schools together.
- You can still generally keep them on similar schedules (with naps, bedtime and so on).
- The older child usually proudly embraces his or her role as big brother or sister, and at least tries to help with the baby.
- The sibling rivalry might be intense.
- A child in their Terrible Twos plus a newborn can make your whole house feel explosive.
- When the new baby arrives, your toddler may (temporarily) transform back into a baby, with thumb sucking, wanting to be held all the time, the works.
- The older child might not understand the concept of being gentle with the new baby.
What parents say: "It's amazing when they're all at the same school. The teachers get to know the whole family," says Jennifer, a mum of three boys, all about two-and-a-half years apart.
Amy, a mother of two kids, two years apart, adds that logistically it's nice that the kids can participate in the same activities and have the same friends, but her kids do fight a lot and are very competitive. "I'm not sure if that's an age gap thing or just our reality," she says. "The older child is not very forgiving of the younger child's age-appropriate behaviour, and I do believe that is because they are so close."
My mother loves to tell a story about how I would make my own sandwiches when I was three years old. Three! I used to think it was a sad story, a commentary on her non-parenting skills, but now that I'm a mum myself, I can see the silver lining. She inadvertently made me a super independent individual.
Three- to Four-Year Age Gap
The gist: This spacing gives parents some time to get comfortable in their roles and figure out what worked and what didn't the first time around. (Sorry, guinea-pig firstborns.) With this gap, the oldest children will have own unique interests and friends, which will remain when the new baby is born, so their lives won't seem completely disrupted.
- The oldest child can help — like actually help — with the new baby. And you can tell them things like, "the baby is sleeping, so you need to be quiet and not poke him with a straw," and he can understand (though whether he listens is another story).
- The oldest child may be potty trained. They can also be pretty independent, feeding and dressing themselves on their own.
- Spacing siblings at least two years apart makes them smarter, according to research by a professor of economics at the University of Notre Dame.
- If the older child is in school, they can bring home a lot of germs that can get the new baby sick. According to a new study, kids under two with are twice as likely to have severe flu symptoms if they have an older brother or sister. Make sure the big kids (anyone over six months) get their flu shot.
- Sibling rivalry is still very real. And now the older kids are bigger and stronger.
What parent say: Devin, a dad of two kids, four years apart, says, "They can't be without each other but hate to be together. The big one just got her LEGOs destroyed by the small one. It's just always something. Both end up yelling at different times." Laina, who has a three-year age gap between her kids, says, "The older child can help with simple things like grabbing diapers, toys and they can somewhat 'play' together. I don't really have any cons. I like this age gap."
5+ Year Age Gap
The gist: Parents may have regained their sanity, and may be a lot more rested and relaxed in parenting their second baby. The first child will be in school, so mums and dads might be able to have some good one-on-one with their second, the same way they experienced their first. And yet, mentally, it can be difficult to get back into that zone.
Sleep habits. Fertility. Steps per day. Water consumption. There's a tracker for that — all of that. So it probably shouldn't have surprised me to read Dr Catherine Pearlman's advice for struggling parents, and yet it kind of blew my mind. When you're trying to change your child's behaviour and you're not sure if what you're doing is working, she suggests collecting some data and analysing it.
- Larger age gaps benefit the older child academically.
- The spacing may give parents extra time to work on their careers and increase their incomes.
- You can really focus on each child separately.
- Your oldest can babysit the youngest (eventually).
- Even if the assumption is that siblings with big age gaps won't become super close, it really isn't true in adulthood. Here are some stories of pairs of sisters who are very far apart in age, but have an extremely tight bond.
- The kids might not be close playmates early on.
- You may feel like you're starting from scratch — re-baby proofing your house, figuring out the new laws when it comes to car seats and such (they can change every year), buying new clothes (unless you've kept everything from five years back), and so on.
- This spacing isn't always possible due to the biological clock.
- A pregnancy five years or more after giving birth is associated with an increased risk of high blood pressure and signs of damage to the kidneys (preeclampsia).
What a parent says: "My kids are 10 and three," says a mum named Brooke. "I was not planning to have this big of an age gap. But when our oldest was two, the economy tanked and I lost my job. We were in no position to try for a second. A year or so later, we were ready! Our first took three months to conceive. Our second took over two years and a little medical help. So, even though our seven year and 2.5 month age gap was not in our plans, I wouldn't change it for the world. My oldest is old enough to understand when we need to give the baby/toddler more attention or when we might need him to help out. He was able to be an only child for a bit and also experience being a sibling. They absolutely love each other — no joke. They adore each other and never fight. The cons? Being pregnant at 37 is way different than being pregnant at 30. Your body is not the same — you feel your age. Just when you get use to having an independent kid, you actually start all over again with the baby stuff. It took a lot to have our second child, so I really did enjoy it all, but you forget how tired you are."