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The Magic Number

Life with a baby is full of decisions: breast or bottle, work or stay at home, use the pacifier or ditch it. But then there's that other decision, the really big one lurking in the back of every harried new mom's head:

Could we, should we, do we want to have another?

Family size is an extremely personal decision, of course.

A mom who always dreamed of a big family can be overwhelmed by the demands of a single child; a mom who grew up as an only might be determined to give her child the siblings she missed. "The number of kids you have affects your marriage, living arrangement, car choice, travel options -- everything," says Susan Newman, Ph.D., author of Parenting an Only Child. Here, the experts weigh in about the pluses and pitfalls of one, two, three, or more children -- and reveal how it can change your life now and down the road.

ONE: Cozy and convenient

Now: With only one little person in your midst, your child-rearing years will be less chaotic and less exhausting. One means fewer strains on your bank account, your body, and your house. (You, mother of one, will be done scraping squashed Cheerios off furniture a lot sooner than your friends with more kids. Tempting, isn't it?) A one-child family is a good choice for dual-career couples, those feeling financially pinched by the cost of baby number one, and anyone who doesn't want to convert their dining room into a playroom. And avid travelers take note: One is for you. "It's hard to pick up and take off when you have four children and sixteen goldfish," Newman points out.

What's more, having an only child no longer carries the stigma that it once did, when larger families were the norm. Onlies get more one-on-one time with Mom and Dad and all their focus. The intensity of that bond can be wonderful, experts say, but it can also be stressful for both the only and his parents. That's because there are no siblings to buffer parental expectations, says Adele Faber, a parenting expert and the coauthor of the best-selling guide Siblings Without Rivalry. Other risks: Onlies can become isolated and, yes, in some cases, a bit self-centered. To combat this, "have other kids around on a regular basis," advises Caroline Hall, a Los Angeles mom of a 1-1/2-year-old girl.

Later: Want a high achiever? Several studies have shown that, on average, only children produce greater professional and academic achievements than later-born children from bigger families. But beware, some adult onlies say that their successes can seem less sweet without siblings to share the journey. Others say they regret being the only one to take care of aging parents and envy friends whose adult sibs helped them navigate life's ups and downs. But that minor glitch, many say, is worth the extra-close bond they have with Mom and Dad. "The sunlight shone on me all the time," says only child Daphne Uviller, the coeditor of a collection of essays titled Only Child: Writers on the Singular Joys and Solitary Sorrows of Growing Up Solo. "And that love brought me a real sense of peace."

Contributing editor Kyle Spencer is a mother of two in Brooklyn, New York, and author of She's Gone Country.

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