Experts and moms weigh in on the ideal age difference between kids
Just as the memory of sleep deprivation begins to fade, as life starts to regain a vague sense of order, it’s inevitable that your mind will wander to the possibility of doing it all over again. Here’s what to consider before bringing home another baby.
First off, don’t stress too much about the psychological impact that age difference will have on your children. Big and small sibling gaps have their own benefits and challenges, says developmental psychologist Roni Cohen Leiderman, Ph.D., of Nova Southeastern University in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. From double diaper duty to sibling rivalry, here are the pros and cons of the most common spacings.
1 to 2 years apart
The main advantage of having siblings with close birthdays is that they’re ready-made playmates. “My boys play on the same soccer team, ride the same school bus, and share toys and friends,” says Jen Singer of Kinnelon, New Jersey, whose sons are 19 months apart. Children younger than 2 years also have an easier time adjusting to a new sibling than older kids do, according to research from the University of Maryland, most likely because they’re not as aware of being displaced as an older child would be.
Another advantage to raising two babies at once is that it can unify the family. “The early hardship of caring for two young children can help draw fathers into the action,” says Sybil Hart, Ph.D., author of Preventing Sibling Rivalry. “The tasks are so demanding that even the most alienated and reluctant father would have to step in.”
Even with the help of a Superdad, however, the early years are a boatload of work. “Those first years, I was just chronically sleep-deprived,” Singer says. “My back ached from carrying both of them. And I’d get so confused, I’d change one kid’s diaper twice and forget the other’s.”
Two closely aged kids can also fight—a lot—over toys, friends, affection, you name it. Trouble often intensifies when the younger child starts crawling. “Because the crawler is at risk of falling down stairs or gobbling up choking hazards, he requires constant monitoring,” says developmental psychologist Burton White, Ph.D., author of Raising a Happy, Unspoiled Child. “That’s when the older one starts to act out, grabbing the little one’s toys and pushing or biting him.” Parents can help by nipping bad behavior in the bud—and by giving the older child a daily dose of private time with Mom or Dad.
2 to 3 years apart
This is the most common interval in American families, according to demographic surveys, and some experts feel it’s the best option. “Two and a half years is great timing,” says Hart, whose children are almost two years apart. “They’re close enough in age to be wonderful companions —they’ll often go to the same schools and see the same movies—but they’re far enough apart to give Mom more time between pregnancies.” And though they can fight like cats and dogs, she says, these squabbles help teach them valuable problem-solving skills.
White doesn’t dismiss the sibling rivalry of closely aged kids as easily. As director of the Harvard Preschool Project, he spent 13 years observing children interact with their younger siblings. What he found was more aggression among kids close in age, as well as increased chronic stress among the caregivers. He saw the dynamic in action in his own home—he had four children within six years. “Never in my wildest, craziest dreams would I have inflicted that on a mother if I knew then what I know now,” he says.
3 or more years apart
A larger age gap can alleviate some of the competition that comes with close-in-age kids, says White. “A four- or five-year-old will treat a one-year-old as her own, showing genuine affection, empathy and compassion.” An age difference of five or six years, he says, is even more stress-free.
Since the older sibling has had ample time to bond with Mom and Dad, she may now be happy to take on the role of mentor. “The age difference turned out to be terrific for us,” says Marjorie Ingall of New York City, whose kids are three years apart. “Josie can help—fetching diapers or grabbing a baby spoon. She was more excited than sulky about having a sister.”
Betsy Murphy of Coral Gables, Florida, waited four and a half years between her sons Teddy and Anderson, partly because she’d been stung by having Teddy only 21 months after big sister Caroline. “I’ve only seen my husband cry three times,” she says. “One of those was when we brought Teddy home from the hospital and he saw the look on Caroline’s face when I was holding Teddy in my bed.”
But it can be complicated to meet the needs of kids who are at different developmental stages—one is creating a Lego castle while the other is trying to eat it—and they may not share friends or hobbies. Some moms also say it’s hard to get back into baby mode after enjoying the freedom of a more self-sufficient child.
A family’s decision to have another child often comes down to factors like money and childcare. Don’t overlook these considerations when contemplating the next baby.
Can you afford it? Expect to pay roughly $10,000 per year for every child under 18— upwards of $180,000, and that’s before factoring in college. More kids may mean needing a bigger car, house, and yard and more medical insurance, food, and clothing. It may also mean fewer luxuries for you, including vacations or dinners out. Jennifer Stevenson of Chicago waited to conceive her second child, due this month, till she and her husband could afford to move from their city apartment to a house in a family-friendly town. “I didn’t want to walk up two flights of stairs carrying my daughter, the groceries, a diaper bag—and a newborn baby,” she says.
Is it efficient? It’s amazing how much stuff a tiny baby needs. If you already have a crib, bouncy seat, high chair and infant car seat, you might want to wait till your first child outgrows them rather than double up on items that your baby uses for such a short time.
Are you set up for childcare? If you’re home with your first child, it might seem like a no-brainer that you can watch your second, too. But what if you’ve got a babysitter or send your child to daycare? Will the babysitter be willing to watch two children? Does the daycare center take infants? Dana Asher of New Rochelle, New York, waited to have her second child because her mother, mother-in-law, and sitter were watching her daughter. “I knew they couldn’t watch two kids, and I couldn’t afford full-time care at that point,” she says.
You’re the one who’s going to deliver this child, so it’s critical to factor in:
Your physical health
“Even if you had an uncomplicated pregnancy, it’s ideal to wait at least 14 to 15 months to allow your body to fully recover from childbirth,” says ob-gyn Jennifer Wu, M.D., of New York City’s Lenox Hill Hospital. Don’t want to wait that long? Dr. Wu recommends a minimum of six months between pregnancies so your uterus can shrink back to size and, if you had a c-section, to allow the incision to heal.
If your first pregnancy was complicated—say you had a postpartum hemorrhage or blood pressure problems—wait until those issues are resolved before trying again. On the other hand, advancing age or medical conditions (such as endometriosis or polycystic ovary syndrome) may prompt you to get rolling sooner.
Your emotional health
Bringing a baby into your life is a huge adjustment. Carlsbad, California, mom Sheri Menelli felt overwhelmed with responsibilities when her daughter was born. “We couldn’t even entertain the notion of having another baby until Allie turned two,” she says. “We were used to eating out and going on vacations, and we lost that intimacy.” Menelli has since added twins, now 17 months, to her brood.
Are you angling for a promotion that you’d like to secure before getting pregnant again? Do you have a big project ahead that will involve late nights and lots of stress? Lynn Ludwig of Bethesda, Maryland, started her own interior decorating business when her son was 6 months old so she could be home with him. Now that business is booming, she’s not so sure she even wants a second child. “Adding another child would require expanding my nanny share agreement, defeating my goal to be home with my children,” she says.
Of course, no matter how carefully you try to plan your family’s size and spacing, countless variables can shake things up. Julie Watson Smith of Boulder, Colorado, hoped to wait two or three years before having another child but got pregnant in spite of using birth control. Now her two youngest are only 19 months apart. “I rarely have a chance to catch my breath,” says Smith. “But I’m thrilled with the dynamics of my family.”
Writer Aviva Patz lives in Montclair, New Jersey, with her husband and two children. They’re contemplating a third.