Spacing Your Kids: Is There an Ideal Interval?

Every parenting book I read discusses the spacing of children. I know there are pros and cons to both longer and shorter spaces between kids. For those of us who want to control the time between our children's births, what are the main points to consider on either side of the spacing issue?

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There are several things to think about if you have the opportunity to choose the spacing of your children. Most have to do with your particular family situation. Some of them have to do with the temperament of your children and others with the developmental needs of children at different ages.

Children in the first three years of life have relatively high needs for attention and care. Both baby and toddler stages require high levels of supervision and often entail round the clock responsibilities. If you have two children under three or two children under two, there is likely to be a pretty constant, sometimes overwhelming need for adult care. Parents may feel exhausted and like they are missing the chance to really enjoy each child as an individual.

There are advantages to having children closely spaced. It consolidates the years that you are in "baby mode." You are set up for diapers, baby-proofing and are already adjusted to "babytime." If children are very close together, there may be less of a feeling of loss at no longer being the only child. Another advantage is that children who are close in age may have similar interests and be natural playmates.

There are many kinds of support that can ease the workload of having children close together. Extended family or a community of friends who are interested in having an active role in the lives of your children can make a big difference. Resources such as parenting groups; nurturing, consistent, quality child care; doula services (people who come in and care for the family after the birth of a baby); household support can provide physical and emotional help.

The advantages of spacing children farther apart include:

  • Having ample time to enjoy and get to know one child before the arrival of another.
  • Get your body "back" before going through pregnancy again.
  • Time to rediscover yourself before you become absorbed in the care of a newborn.
  • Having an older child who may be better able to do some self-care and understand the needs of a new baby.
  • Opportunity for children of different ages to enjoy playing with each other. Older kids get to safely "revisit" younger kinds of play and younger kids love to play and learn with older kids. Older children also get to experience the role of being "nurturer" to someone younger.

The challenges in having children farther apart may be:

  • Children of widely varying ages have differing needs that are hard to meet at the same time (eg. getting a child to soccer practice when you have a sleeping baby at home).
  • The children may also not share similar interests because of their different developmental levels.
  • A child who has been an "only" child for several years may experience a major adjustment to gaining a sibling.

The temperament of parent and child will affect the success of the spacing. Easy-going, independent, social children may delight in the arrival of a sibling at any time. High-need, sensitive children may have more of an adjustment to make to the addition of a brother or sister. Further, they may need more adult attention all the time, before and after the sibling comes.

Parental temperament is another key factor. There are people who easily slip into the role of parenting, fitting naturally into the rhythm and demands of the job as if they had been doing it their entire lives. For these parents, the addition of another baby just makes life richer. For others, who find interrupted sleep, unpredictable schedules and duet crying a challenge, adding another baby can make life feel crazy.

Lastly, parental expectations about the sibling relationship make a difference in the success of the family relationships. Parents who have had contentious relations with their own siblings may have a harder time envisioning their own children having close, supportive relationships than parents who have experienced the benefits of lifelong friendships with their own siblings.

Making the choice about spacing siblings in a family is a very personal decision. The beauty and the challenge of it is that, even if you take all the necessary factors into consideration, there are many things about the decision that you don't get to control. It is important to remember that healthy, happy sibling relationships happen in many different configurations.

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