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The Advantages of Baby Spacing

When Hinda Winawer gave birth to her daughter, she knew that she already had a trustworthy babysitter who could work evenings and on short notice: her 16-year-old son. And fortunately, the boy never minded babysitting his little sister. He'd happily go for a stroll or sit on the porch with her after school.

While Winawer was pleased that her son doted on his baby sister, she soon realized that his attentions weren't due purely to brotherly love. "It turned out that having her around was a great way to attract girls," she says.

Couples who have children more than four years apart don't necessarily set out to have a wide age gap  -- secondary infertility or remarriage are often the deciding factor. But families are discovering the advantages of spacing their kids so widely. And, as Winawer realized when her infant daughter turned out to be a babe magnet for her son, there can be many unexpected benefits for every member of the family.

Gabrielle Glaser is the author of Strangers to the Tribe: Portraits of Interfaith Marriage.

"We aren't as stressed, so the kids get more attention." For many parents, a gap between babies is a sanity saver. When Melinda Boyle, mother of Katie, 14, Patrick, 13, and Megan, 4, had her first two children, she often felt too overwhelmed to truly cherish their babyhood. "I was tired all the time when they were toddlers. I felt like I couldn't take my eyes off them for a minute  -- not even to answer the phone," says the Madras, OR, mom.

But when Megan was born, Boyle had her older kids to pitch in. They helped dress their baby sister, change her diaper, and even spoon-feed her. Now, they entertain her when mom needs a break.

And since Boyle's older children are more self-sufficient, she can give Megan lots of one-on-one time. In fact, that's one of the biggest advantages, says Barbara Lino, Ph.D., a senior psychologist at the Institute for Child Development, in Hackensack, NJ. When parents have a new baby close on the heels of another child, they often hunger for special time with each  -- something that's more readily available if kids are born further apart. And this sort of individual attention can pay off later: It may help children do better at school when they're older.

"Our marriage is stronger." "My husband and I were able to recover from a 'crisis-management stage' before we had another child," says Carolee Larsen, of Jackson, MS, mom to Christina, 6, and Cameron, 1. "There were several years when we could resume our pre-parents' schedule  -- going to parties and out for dinner  -- because we could easily leave Christina with a sitter." And since she already had long-standing relationships with caregivers, when the time came Larsen also felt comfortable leaving her infant son, Cameron, with them on occasion.

Plus, the extra-long break between kids really fueled her family's excitement about the birth of their second child. "My husband and I didn't want to just get through our children's babyhood," she says. "We wanted to have the time to cherish each one. And having a baby in the house has provided a nice counterbalance to my daughter's ever-growing independence."

"Money isn't as big an issue." The first few years of a child's life are expensive  -- baby food, diapers, equipment, toys, and childcare costs all add up. So spacing kids further apart lets a couple recover from the financial blow. "Unlike my friends, I only had to buy diapers for one child at a time, which helped our family budget," says Kathy DeStefano, of Boston, mother of Andrew, 7, and Alex, 18 months.

She adds that Andrew has benefited from the wide spacing. "Because Alex is still too young to have hobbies, we can afford for Andrew to play on a baseball team and take karate classes," she says. "If the boys were closer in age, it would have to be one or the other."

Families of widely spaced kids also don't have to pay for two in daycare at once, and down the road, won't have to contend with more than one college tuition at a time.

"Our careers had a chance to flourish." Before having another baby, parents can devote time to their work lives, which can allow them to advance more quickly.

Carolee Larsen had started writing her Ph.D. dissertation when Christina was born; she conceived a second time after becoming a college professor. "I'm lucky that it turned out this way, because it let me stabilize my career before I went into another round of pregnancy, childbirth, and recovery. I just wasn't as time-crunched as I would have been if I'd had two kids close together," she says.

"The kids rarely fight." Older children frequently react better to a new family addition; they're less likely than a toddler to hit the baby, and instead of throwing a temper tantrum when they're jealous, they're able to express their emotions with words. Plus, most grade-schoolers aren't as dependent on their mom and dad for attention because they're establishing their own social lives, with friends and after-school activities to keep them busy. This cuts down on sibling rivalry.

Terri Nemschoff, of Rockville Centre, NY  -- the mother of Gregg, 12, and Jenna, 4  -- says that Gregg takes pride in his little sister's accomplishments without feeling threatened. At a recent dance recital, he beamed as he watched Jenna's tap routine. Later, when their grandmother arrived for a visit, Gregg bounded to greet her: "Grandma, you've got to see Jenna do her dance!"

Although there's no consensus among experts about the ideal age difference between siblings, it's clear that parents of widely spaced children often face unique demands that may accompany the perks.

"My husband and I have trouble keeping up." No matter what your age, tending to a baby  -- those sleepless nights and countless diaper changes  -- is physically exhausting. Nemschoff says that she was surprised at how awkward she felt when Jenna was born. "I was out of practice with infants," she says. "It had been a long time, and I'd forgotten how much work it was."

Her solution: Hiring a sitter for a few hours each week. "I decided that it was important to spend some time doing things for myself. I didn't think I deserved that when I was in my twenties," she says.

"We have too little family time." Many parents find that because their kids share few interests with one another, they can't do as many activities together.

"My son likes exciting rides and scary movies, which just aren't appropriate for my daughter," says Nemschoff. "So on weekends my husband and I split up. Gregg and I will see an action movie, and my husband will take Jenna to the playground so she can go up and down the slide."

"Raising kids spaced far apart is, in many ways, like raising two only children," says Lino. Children may grow up thinking that the world revolves around them because they don't have to share attention with others, she notes.

That's why it's important to make a point of doing things as a family, even if it means just sitting down as a group for breakfast or dinner and taking family vacations that appeal to both youngsters. Carolee Larsen finds that kid-friendly resorts work well for her family. Melinda Boyle takes her kids on ski vacations."The skiing and snowboarding appeal to my older kids," she says. "And as a family, we can go sledding."

"We worry that the older kids are overburdened." Boyle sometimes wonders if she's been fair to her older kids by giving them so many responsibilities. "I expect a lot from them," she says. "Since I'm working on my master's degree, Katie helped babysit Megan this summer rather than get a part-time job. And Patrick filled in when Katie had plans."

Parents must be careful, says Elliott Rosen, Ph.D., director of the Family Institute of Westchester, in White Plains, NY. It's easy to take advantage of an older child, relying on him too frequently for babysitting duty, and fueling his resentment toward a younger sibling.

You also don't want a child to use the baby as an excuse to avoid dealing with his own problems, such as trouble with friends or schoolwork. "If a 12-year-old comes home every day and only wants to play with his younger brother or sister, it should ring some warning chimes," says Rosen.

The key is to stay tuned in. If your child complains about his sibling, don't immediately dismiss his concerns. Also, make sure to ask him about his day, and encourage him to participate in after-school-activities that don't involve your little one. For instance, Boyle makes sure that Katie gets to play golf and be a cheerleader and that Patrick has time to participate on a football team. Remember, your older child needs to be a kid too.

"The baby is growing up too fast." Kathy DeStefano worries that she is robbing Alex of his babyhood. In the afternoon, she often has to wake him up quickly from a nap in order to pick up Andrew after school. Then, instead of "tearing around the house," as he likes to do, Alex must stay on the sidelines during Andrew's baseball or karate practice.

Your older child's schedule will tax the younger one's attention span, so bring books or crayons to entertain her. If there are other younger kids around, encourage your child to play quietly with them, says Lino.

Just keep your expectations realistic. A toddler will probably be reasonably well-behaved for a half hour or so, says Lino, especially if she can run around and make some noise (at soccer practice, for instance). But if you know that an older child's activity demands a certain amount of silence, or that it will last longer than your little one's patience, try to set up a playdate or hire a babysitter so you can attend the function solo.

The flip side is that a younger child can benefit by trying to keep pace with an older brother or sister. "An older sibling doesn't reprimand," says Rosen, "but he still garners respect and can exert a positive influence."

The baby gap is certainly transforming the traditional sibling relationship as well as the typical American family, says Rosen. And most parents of widely spaced kids say they couldn't imagine their family any other way. Says Larsen, "Having a second baby years after the first was like a big bonus."