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The Kid Gap

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With three kids under age 4, my friend Katie juggles juice boxes and bottles, pulls double diaper duty, and hopes that her 3-year-old's viewing of Pocahontas doesn't interrupt her 3-month-old's nap. But this is exactly how she likes it. "It's nice that my kids can play together," she says. "And I'm happy I'm getting the baby stage over with now."

Then there's my sister-in-law Stephanie, who has a five-year gap between each of her three kids  -- and who now spends her weeks ferrying them between high school, grade school, and preschool. "Sometimes I think it would be better for me if I'd had them a little closer," she says. "But I appreciate that I never had two in diapers, and it made things seem more doable to never have two kids both clamoring to be on my lap."

Of course, there's no such thing as just-right sibling spacing. For every mom who's convinced that a 13-month age difference makes for a tight relationship between her kids, there's another who'll swear that 13 years is better for keeping sibling spats at bay.

Even the experts don't agree on what's best for kids  -- or for moms. Are close-in-age siblings more likely to become friends? Yes, say some, and fewer years spent caring for little ones can help women avoid the mommy track at work. Or do widely spaced children have the advantage? Maybe, say others, because if kids are closer in age, they're more likely to need to compete for similar resources, like money for after-school lessons and time for museum trips.

The bottom line: The number of years between your kids matters, but probably not as much as you think. Whether they're two or ten years apart, you're bound to have happy moments and some headaches. The scoop on parenting sibs  -- whatever their age gap:

1 year apart

Most moms need more than a few months to get the hang of their newborns before plunging back into pregnancy  -- with good reason. Studies show that getting pregnant less than six months after giving birth slightly increases the chance that your next baby will be born prematurely or with a low birth weight. And back-to-back pregnancies can sap your energy and multiply new-mom stress. "I was just getting to the point where my son was sleeping through the night. Then I was so nauseous during my pregnancy that I was up all the time," says Stephanie Gilbreaith, mom of Kolton, 2, and Cierra, 1, from Dothan, Alabama. "After Cierra was born, I was so grateful that the doctors kept me in the hospital for three days. I think they said, 'Let's help her  -- she's exhausted.'"

Kerri Charette, a mom of five from Gales Ferry, Connecticut, loves that 4-year-old Summer and 3-year-old Joy always have a playmate  -- and that they're not learning Gwen Stefani songs from a much older sibling. But, she says, it's a lot like having multiples  -- only harder in some ways. "With twins you may be going through the same stages at the same time. But when your kids are thirteen months apart, you've just gotten over the hurdle of potty training, and then you have to start all over again."

Moms' best advice 

Make the age gap work to your advantage. For instance, try to introduce new concepts, like potty training, to both kids at once. Your younger child may not be ready just yet, but the sneak preview  -- and the example of a big sib  -- may help her make the leap sooner.

Two babies also means there's never enough Mom to go around  -- and you'll have Jell-O arms if you're holding both kids all day. Gilbreaith's solution: a front carrier to keep baby Cierra in while she did laundry or played on the floor with Kolton. "I could hug the person who invented that," she says. "It was a huge help."

2 years apart

A two-year age difference gives your kids a great shot at being buddies, since they'll naturally like a lot of the same things. A 3- and a 5-year-old, or a 6- and an 8-year-old, can watch the same TV shows or play games together. This age gap works well for parents, too. If you have a 2-year-old who needs to take a nap every afternoon and a 4-year-old who needs quiet time, you can handle both kids together.

Having two on the opposite ends of toddlerhood can be a hassle, though. "A lot of things  -- like dumping clothes out of dresser drawers  -- probably wouldn't happen if it were just one of them," says Misty Groby, of Glen Carbon, Illinois, of her son, Trent, 4, and his 2-year-old sister, Torilynn. "But because they're together, they think it's fun."

Some major bickering is to be expected, but if you look at the fighting in relation to the total time your kids spend together, it may not be as bad as you think. "Siblings who are friends might squabble more, but they also play more and enjoy each other more," says Sybil Hart, Ph.D., author of Preventing Sibling Rivalry: Six Strategies to Build a Jealousy-Free Home.

Moms' best advice 

Keep in mind that since they're so close, transitions will be tough. Try to ease your younger child through changes, like a brother starting kindergarten, by signing him up for a class all his own, like swimming or tae kwon do lessons. He may even be able to teach his brother a thing or two.

And be prepared for some setbacks. A 2-year-old is going through his own big-kid transitions, which can be thrown off by the arrival of a baby. "My son was almost completely potty trained when Torilynn was born," says Groby, "and then that was over. We had to put him back in training pants." Try not to make a big deal out of his regression. If you make time for games he loves, like hide-and-seek, it'll remind him that big kids have more fun.

When it comes to kids egging each other on to bad behavior, you'll have to accept a certain amount of it, but also rely on that mommy sense you've developed and separate them once you can see trouble's brewing.

3 years apart

Madeleine Smith started chatting up an imaginary sister months before her mom, Lisa, got pregnant again. So Smith, who lives in Fullerton, California, wasn't surprised that the 3-year-old was on board with having a new sibling. "Before Nathan was born, Madeleine practiced singing songs to him," she says.

Older now (Madeleine is 6, and Nathan is 3), the kids play well together. And, says Smith, since he's always hanging out with a kindergartner, Nathan's developed a skill set that includes reciting the alphabet, counting to 20, and remembering his address and phone number (he learned it from a song Smith made up for Madeleine).

The downside? Sometimes Madeleine likes to boss her little brother around, and the two tend to have at least one fight a day. (Currently they argue over who gets to hop in the car first.) For the most part, though, Madeleine's increased maturity has made life a bit less hectic for Smith. "Mornings when I say, 'Can you sit here and read together?' and I can take a shower  -- those are great mornings," she says.

Moms' best advice 

Teach your kids to work out disputes on their own. When your 8-year-old is about to throttle the 5-year-old, it's obvious that some parental guidance is called for. But helping your children learn to handle minor quarrels themselves  -- deciding who gets to use the red crayon, for instance  -- saves you the hassle of always stepping in. One way to stop certain fights? Mary Anne Nally of Rahway, New Jersey, came up with this rule: When it comes time to split something  -- a cookie, a piece of paper  -- one of her daughters gets to cut it in half and the other gets to choose which piece she wants. "I'm always amazed at how even the halves come out!"

4 or more years apart

Susan Kulasekara of Edwardsville, Illinois, thought the five-year gap between her kids Michaela, 8, and Ryan, 3, would limit the potential for power struggles. Not quite. "They fight like cats and dogs," she says. "A lot of the time it's about their stuff." Part of the problem is that older children are more protective of their toys, making it harder for them to be patient with a curious-about-everything crawler. Plus, a 5-year-old has had enough time sans a sibling that a new baby can be overwhelming. It isn't always an easy age gap for parents, either. "If you've got one starting school and another making the transition from liquids to solids, the baby is probably going to be top on your priority list," says Kulasekara. "And that'll just make you feel guilty."

But in many ways, the larger age difference is an advantage. Your older child is more independent when it comes to things like picking up toys  -- she may even have an in with the toddler. "Sometimes Michaela can get Ryan dressed when I can't," says Kulasekara.

Moms' best advice 

Have fun, together and apart. Try to figure out at least one activity  -- like camping, riding bikes, or hanging out at the beach  -- that everyone can enjoy together. Then make sure to schedule time to do age-appropriate activities with each of your kids individually.

When Paula Schmitt of Chelsea, Vermont, would take her then 2-year-old daughter, Anna, to one of her older brothers' evening basketball games, she realized it wasn't such a smart idea. "I always faced the wrath of a whiny, cranky child the next morning," she says. So she made sure Anna didn't miss her afternoon nap if she was going to bring her to a game. Now if Schmitt knows they'll be home late enough to throw off Anna's schedule, she lines up a sitter. You can always make up for the missed family time by sharing extra bedtime stories the next night.

Your kids are going to be siblings a good, long time. Teaching them to make room for each other's needs is something that'll benefit all of you, no matter how old they are or what their age difference is.

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