Three Years Apart
Here, you get the best and worst of the extremes: The kids will probably overlap in school and be close enough in age to be involved in each other's activities, schools, and friendships -- but not close enough that they'll be able to play or share friends like real compadres. And three years' difference might be just enough to avoid the fierce, head-to-head matches seen in a closer spacing -- but your older child won't be mature enough to hold off on "you're doing it wrong" comments to his little brother.
While a 2- to 3-year-old can certainly anticipate the birth of a little brother or sister, not everything is 100 percent understood. Anne Halsey of Chicago said that her 3-year-old daughter was so interested in her baby brother that she was upset to find out that she wasn't able to nurse him herself. "Several of those early occasions ended up in crying episodes," says Halsey. "We had to give her a doll as a substitute, and she'd 'nurse' the doll while I fed the baby." Tisha Black of Searcy, AR, had a similar experience with her kids, ages 6, 3, and 5 months. "If anything, sometimes our bigger kids have wanted to help too much," she says. "When our youngest came along, our middle tried feeding her Goldfish snacks when she was only a few weeks old!"
The Marriage Factor
A three-year gap can allow you a little long-lost couple time between kids, but it can also feel like a long stretch of baby days. "I've been pregnant or nursing for almost six of the past nine years," says Maya Packard of Charlotte, NC, who has girls ages 8, 5, and 1. "There have been periods when I've felt rested enough and attractive enough to have a good sex life with my husband, but it's been a challenge."
What Moms Love
Many older kids are ready to grab the "big sib" mantle and run with it. And Packard says she loves that she's been able to enjoy each child individually. "By the time each baby came along, the older one was in preschool at least part-time, so I could really just focus on the baby at least for some of the day," she says. "Also, because their ages are so disparate, I don't compare them very much. I appreciate their separate stages of childhood."
What Moms Don't Love
Your first child is old enough to make comparisons, but not mature enough to understand that babies need more of your care. The little ones, meanwhile, may grow to envy their big sib's activities and independence. Moms say that the activity gap can seem insurmountable at first -- after all, what do a 6-month-old and a 3-year-old have in common? And the challenges of the situation can begin to wear thin. "We've been scheduling around naps, childproofing the house, and cleaning food up off the floor five times a day for a long time now," says Packard.
Finding activities both kids enjoy gets easier as they age. "Now that Liam is old enough, we sometimes set up a craft -- ice-pop sticks with glue, pom-poms, and googly eyes are a big favorite -- or a puzzle they can work on together in the kitchen while I cook," says Sarah Dolven of Leverett, MA, who has a 3 1/2- and a 7-year-old. To help a younger sib deal with jealousy over what big kids can do, moms say it helps to plan special activities, anything that reminds them that they're not just less-developed versions of their big sibs but cool kids in their own right.