You may have in mind the perfect age gap for your brood. However did you know that certain age gaps carry with them, emotional, financial, intellectual and even health consequences?
At present, we parents do not have the option of determining whether a next-born child will be active or quiet, able-bodied or disabled. But we at least have some control over the child’s age relative to that of his older sibling. Here I am going to explore the serious (and not so serious) consequences of each birth spacing.
1 Year Age Gap
(Your child is 1 year old when your next baby is born)
(Your child is 1 year old when your next baby is born)
- You have a lower risk of preeclampsia than mothers who space their pregnancies wider apart (Mikolajczyk 2008).
- It consolidates the exhausting years that you are in "baby mode". You become a well-oil and efficient parenting machine with your conveyor belt of diaper changing, tooth brushing and tandem feeding. (Shared bathwater, anyone?) Such efficiency means that you have more time to spend on other activities (Osmanowski and Cardona).
- If you work you will be on maternity leave while your eldest is still very much a baby, so you'll be around for important milestones such as first steps and words.
- Your children will go through the same stages in fairly close succession, which makes it financially easier to hand down clothing, toys and equipment rather than arranging storage for years.
- Observational studies of parents and how well they coped with young children have found that this age gap is easiest as the parent can treat both babies similarly (Wagner et al).
- This age gap is thought to be best at unifying the family. "The early hardship of caring for two young children can help draw fathers into the action. The tasks are so demanding that even the most alienated and reluctant father would have to step in" (Hart).
- Your children may have the same friends, watch the same TV, and play the same games, all of which often means less work for you.
- You can organise family outings without having to wait years until the youngest child is ready to participate.
- You can get rid of all of the baby clutter quicker.
- They'll play well together. “Siblings who know they need each other to continue their games are motivated to sort out their disagreements” (Baby Centre). In other words, as the importance of companionship goes up, the importance of rivalry goes down.
- Your existing child is less likely to reject the new baby as they won’t fully understand issues such as displacement, territory or personal possessions. Having not experienced an extended period of exclusive parental attention, they develop lesser expectations of receiving preferential treatment from parents. These benefits have been shown to extend into adolescence (Kidwell).
- Studies have shown that girls benefit intellectually from closer-spaced sibling age gaps. However the reverse is true for boys (Rosenberg and Sutton-Smith).
- The closer the age gap, the more creative your children are likely to be, regardless of gender (Baer et al).
- The ever-increasing age of first-time mothers can make it feel like that their so-called biological clock is ticking faster and faster. Having your children in quick succession can pacify fertility fears.
- This age gap can also help career and childcare choices. If you’re working it can be easier to organise childcare for children of a similar age, rather than having years of juggling different childcare arrangements. You may save money because you can get a nanny for both children - this can work out cheaper than two daycare places.
- Falling pregnant so soon after your last pregnancy increases the risk that you will be deficient in important nutrients. For instance, you have a greater risk of developing iron deficiency and anaemia (Morasso et al; Vandenbroucke et al) and gastroschisis (Getz et al).
- You have an increased risk of placental abruption (Blumenfeld et al).
- Compared to women who wait two years to conceive, you are 3.4 times more likely to experience labor or delivery complications (MDCH).
- If your previous birth was via caesarean, you are at an increased risk of uterine rupture if you attempt a VBAC. To give you the stats: waiting less than 6 months before trying again will triple your chances of uterine rupture during VBAC (Stamilio et al; Esposito et al 2000).
- Your baby is at a greater risk of having a lower-than-expected or low birth weight (less than 2500g), being preterm (King). This is thought to be linked to the low collagen concentrations in the cervix of women with closely spaced pregnancies (Sundtoft et al).
- They are also at increased risk of suffering from congenital anomalies (Chen et al), schizophrenia (Gunawardana), menstrual disorders (Smits et al), and low IQ (Probert; (Pettersson-Lidbom and Skogman Thoursie). The latter is particular so if your child is a boy.
- Your baby is also at an increased risk of stillbirth or succumbing to early neonatal death, even if you live in a high-income country. Ouch! (Wendt).
- You are more likely to develop the baby blues (Gürel).
- The shorter the interval between pregnancies, the higher the SIDS rate (American SIDS Institute).
- Over-supply of breastmilk is more likely to occur if your children are closely spaced. It’s as though your body is producing milk for a bigger baby and your newborn struggles with the faster flow of the milk (Cave and Fertleman).
- Looking after a baby while you're pregnant can be very tiring. Your body won’t have fully recovered from the last pregnancy. You may be excessively tired and easily run down. Iron and calcium stores will not have had time to replenish (Winkvist et al; King).
- Anything less than an 18 month gap has been shown to reduce a woman's life expectancy (Centre for Population Studies; The Independent).
- Some studies suggest that you will be more likely to mistreat your children if you have spaced them this closely. 18% more likely, to be precise (Thompson et al).
- Giving birth within 12 months of a prior birth is associated with complications such as placental abruption, which happens then the placenta separates from the uterine wall, and placenta previa, which occurs when a portion of the placenta covers the cervix (MayoClinic).
- Having a gap of less than 17 months is associated with a significantly increased risk of having a baby of prematurely and underweight. The risks are highest for babies conceived less than six months after the birth of a previous child (World Health Organisation; Conde-Agudelo et al).
- You may feel that you haven't had enough time alone with your first-born before the next arrives.
- Your older child is still very much a baby. He has plenty of baby needs and is going to have a tough time waiting for you to meet them.
- Tandem breastfeeding is not appealing to everyone. Even if you like the idea, some babies self-wean during pregnancy (due to taste changes and possible drop in supply) so your breastfeeding relationship with your firstborn could be prematurely cut short.
- You'll find it harder to shift the 'baby weight' (Davis).
- The early years may pass in a blur. It will be an all-consuming experience of sleepless nights, diapers, breastfeeding, pureed food and laundry.
- Being so close in age may mean that you are less able to enjoy your babies as individuals.
- Your toddler may not be sleeping through regularly when your baby arrives.
- In the early years, outings will be limited as you struggle to attend swim lessons, the park, and Mother & Toddler groups with both children.
- Your children will be at an increased risk of attachment problems. The theory is that neither child gets enough attention from the mother to create the close mother-child bond that children need to flourish (Kauai Longitudinal Study).
- Common interests lead to competition and one of the children (usually the youngest) can become insecure if he constantly does less well than his older sibling.
- It's not all good news for the first-born either. Because their sibling was born before the older child lost the belief that they're responsible for everything that happens, a long-last psychological legacy often occurs: essentially, the older child, driven by fear of rejection, will have a chronic tendency to be highly self-critical and less likely to forgive themselves when they make mistakes. Many firstborns never lose this tendency to feel guilty and/or overly responsible when things go wrong (Blair).
- At school, your younger child may feel like they are in the older child’s shadow academically. Being closer in age encourages competitiveness.
- Some recent studies suggest that children who are born only a year after an older sibling are three times more likely to be diagnosed with autism (Gunnes et al; Cheslack-Postava et al). This is because women are more likely to have depleted levels of nutrients such as folate and iron, as well as higher stress levels, after a recent pregnancy (affecting fetal brain development).
- In the future, when your children want to start college, it’s going to cost a lot of money in a short space of time (Powell).
- You are likely to need extra equipment, like a second cot (if you haven’t transitioned number-one by number-two’s arrival, or if your cot was intended to convert to a bed), a second car seat and a double stroller.
- There will be double the college expenses, wedding expenses, etc within relatively close succession.
2 Year Age Gap
(Your child is 2 years old when your next baby is born)
(Your child is 2 years old when your next baby is born)
- Having a 2 year gap may capitalise on changes to your body as a result of the previous pregnancy and birth that benefit carrying another baby (Zhu et al; Grisaru-Granovsky et al). For example, it may be that increased blood flow to the uterus from the last pregnancy benefits the next baby, but that there is a limited time window of about two years before blood flow returns to pre-pregnancy levels.
- You are 47% less likely to have a preterm baby than a woman with a shorter gap between pregnancies (Fuentes-Afflick and Hessol).
- If you're over 35, this age gap is best for reducing the risk of your youngest child being preterm or low birthweight (Nabukera et al 2008).
- You’ll remember how to care for a newborn whilst also having the confidence that comes with being a more experienced mum.
- Your children will play reasonably well together.
- Your first-born is now more capable of waiting a bit before having his needs satisfied.
- Firstborns often take to their newly acquired status as the older child by showing new self-reliance in matters such as dressing, toilet use and feeding, even volunteering to give up their “babyish” bottles and by contentedly entertaining themselves.
- This age gap has been shown to enhance the older child’s ability in maths and in reading (Buckles).
- If you suffer from morning sickness or other pregnancy issues, your toddler is old enough to observe it yet still too young to understand, and thus may become distressed.
- There is likely to be times during pregnancy when you will need to lift your toddler which can put undue stress on your abdomen.
- You'll be slammed with first-trimester exhaustion at a time when your wobbly toddler is learning to run and climb, and needs constant supervision.
- Sibling jealousy will be at its worse than it would be with a smaller or larger age gap (Cave and Fertleman). At the age of two children are at their most egocentric and become frustrated easily when they cannot control their environment, which leaves them prone to jealousy (Bounty).
- Separation anxiety (a normal developmental stage during which a toddler experiences anxiety if separated from his primary carer) is greatest at this age, so the introduction of a new baby at this time makes the regression more pronounced (Probert).
- You have the double pressure of an irritable newborn and toddler tantrums. It may seem at times that you have a very disharmonious household.
- When you go out you’ll have worry about packing enough nappies for the newborn as well as packing extra clothes and making sure you know where the nearest bathroom is for your toilet-training toddler.
- The younger sibling is almost twice as likely to be diagnosed with autism than a child with a larger age gap (Cheslack-Postava et al).
- Children are more likely to have a negative view of themselves and their parents when their closest siblings are around two years apart, moreso than any other spacing (Kidwell). The firstborn child tends to become more demanding and negative toward their parents, and has more problems, such as in eating and sleeping. It is believed that children of this age are simply not ready yet to share their parents and thus experience intense resentment towards new siblings and lowered self-esteem because they’ve been “jilted". (If the space between siblings is under one year or over four years, the negativity disappears). Research at Colorado State University, for example, has found that for firstborns, having a younger sibling born two or more years later dealt the older child a blow to its self-esteem, while having a sibling born less than two years later did not have that effect (Goleman).
- If your newborn is a constant crier this could distress your toddler. Two year olds are beginning to develop empathy and concern, yet are still too young to understand that crying babies are displaying normal, healthy behaviour.
3 Year Age Gap
(Your child is 3 years old when your next baby is born)
(Your child is 3 years old when your next baby is born)
- Your elder child should cope well with your pregnancy, understanding on a basic level, morning sickness and your need for rest.
- You can encourage your child's involvement in the pregnancy by taking him or her shopping for baby supplies or looking through his or her own baby items (which you probably still have hanging around) for things the new baby might use.
- At this age your child may be receptive to having a doll so he or she can be a caregiver too, thus facilitating their understanding.
- She will have her own established life and friends which will continue once the baby is born. This adds a helpful layer of consistency and familiarity to her life when she needs it most.
- You have the lowest risk of labor complications (Zhu).
- This age gap is best for the health of the new baby, with a decreased risk of being born prematurely, underweight or of developing congenital anomalies (Chen et al; Conde-Agudelo et al). In fact, a 3 year gap is nature’s preferred pattern. This is because until babies began using bottles, and a surplus of food for their mothers became available, women’s bodies were unlikely to conceive again until at least 3 years after birth.
- This age gap between children is so common that your firstborn will have friends with similarly spaced siblings, which is very convenient for double playdates.
- By the time your second baby arrives you should have caught up on sleep.
- You’ll have time with just your baby while your older child is at pre-school.
- Some of the most intense parts of parenting become easier with a calmer, and more independent 3 year old. She is more articulate and can entertain herself for limited amounts of time.
- Your first-born is mature enough to enjoy the new baby and also to enjoy time away from you without seeing it as a threat.
- Observational studies of parents have found that this gap is the hardest to cope with from a practical view as the oldest child is too old to be treated similarly to his younger sibling but is not capable of caring for himself (Wagner et al).
- Sibling jealousy is still intense. Your older child will understand exactly what the new arrival means, and may compete furiously for her share of you. She is old enough to make comparisons, but not mature enough to understand that babies need more of your care.
- Feeling that her security is being threatened can cause your older child to lash out at their younger sibling. Physical aggression peaks at age 3 (Tremblay).
- There's a lot of evidence to show that preschoolers regress (e.g. toilet mishaps, baby talk, return to comforters) when a new baby is born. The effects are greatest with this gap (Probert).
- The younger sibling is slightly more likely to be diagnosed with autism than a child with a larger age gap (Cheslack-Postava et al).
- Your older child’s tiny-part toys are all over the house, which could pose a danger to your baby.
- Those baby activities you enjoyed with your firstborn are impossible with a lively preschooler in tow.
- Your older child can bring home illnesses from preschool (chicken pox, viral diseases, colds) which could prove harmful to your baby with their immature immune system.
- Be prepared for for an influx of questions re: the birds and the bees, genitals, boobs, and other topics some parents find embarrassing.
Four Years+ Age Gap
(Your child is 4+ years old when your next baby is born)
(Your child is 4+ years old when your next baby is born)
- This is deemed the best spacing if you have a career (Troske and Voicu).
- Some researchers believe this spacing is optimal for children's emotional and social development. ''It frees the parent from having to meet the demands and pressures of two children close together in age, thus allowing parents and children more time in one-to-one interaction for a more supportive and relaxed relationship'' (Kidwell).
- This gap is good for your eldest child's self esteem - they are more secure and more independent as they have had your attention for years. The rationale here is that the longer a parent-child relationship remains exclusive, or at least has the appearance of exclusiveness, the greater the chance it will gather sufficient strength to withstand a second child’s intrusion. "The elder child has developed cognitively to the point that they are capable of realising that the arrival of the new baby wasn't because they were suddenly inadequate or had done something wrong" (Blair).
- Many feel that older children, because of their greater intellectual maturity and independence, are in a better position to understand and therefore be spared, jealousy. Your children won't feel that they are competing for the same kind of attention from you. The older child "does not see a baby as competition, but as an adorable being to enjoy and nurture. She sees a baby as an addition to her life rather than a threat to her primary relationship with mom or dad...She is not with the baby sharing mom, but with the mom sharing the baby" (Aldort).
- Your older child may be mature enough to attend the delivery, which can aid bonding.
- If the birth involves a hospital stay, your older child is likely to cope better with being separated from you.
- She is likely to be more gentle with the new arrival. Physical aggression in children is at its most frequent from ages two to four and gradually declines thereafter (Tremblay).
- Studies have shown that boys in particular benefit intellectually from a large sibling age gap, particularly if they are the eldest child (Rosenberg and Sutton-Smith).
- You are less likely to need a c-section (Cecatti et al).
- The younger sibling is less likely to be diagnosed with autism than a child with a smaller age gap (Cheslack-Postava et al).
- You’ll have plenty of time with your baby whilst your older child is at school. Indeed, observational studies of mothers and infants have found that if four years or more have passed since the birth of the last child, a mother is more likely to treat a new infant with the special care and attention she lavished on her firstborn (Goleman).
- At about the age of five, children develop a distinct self-sufficiency that makes it easier for you to balance the needs of more than one child. Most can get themselves a snack, entertain themselves in their room, or have a friend over while you're busy with baby.
- Those who are 4 or more years apart tend to accept help from each other more readily (usually the younger from the elder), and be more willing to teach and praise each other (Probert).
- When you are in the middle of nursing, the older sibling can answer phone calls, get you a drink of water, fetch a baby wipe, etc.
- You’ll have the confidence that comes with having been a parent for years. It's likely that you'll be more relaxed this time and less likely to worry about the little things.
- Some parents report “enjoying their children more” because they are able to concentrate on each child without feeling constantly under pressure.
- Your older child will be more skilled at patience, sharing, compassion, and cooperation.
- Some studies have found that children who are more widely spaced tend to have better communication skills (Wagner et al).
- You and your partner will have had time to build a strong, stable relationship.
- You extend your parenting years, delaying the quiet of the empty nest.
- The new sibling - particularly if their gender is different from that of the older sibling - is likely to be treated as another first born, with the accompanying heightened attention from their parents (Blair).
- Waiting for years before having another child may not be an option for a mother who is reaching the end of her child-bearing years.
- You have a greater risk of premature rupture of membranes (Cecatti et al).
- Compared to women who wait two years to conceive, you are 4 times more likely to experience labor or delivery complications (MDCH).
- Having a gap of more than five years is associated with a significantly increased risk of having a baby who is premature or underweight (McCowan and Horgan; Grisaru-Granovsky et al) or has congenital anomalies (Chen et al).
- You are more likely to experience dystocia and other problematic labour/delivery as well as increasing the chance of suffering from preeclampsia, gestational diabetes, and excessive amounts of protein in urine (Conde-Agudelo et al; MayoClinic; Khambalia; Sandström et al).
- You’ll be stretching out the exhausting early years – particularly if you plan a third child.
- If you have a history of serious postpartum depression, your risk of developing it again increases the larger the gap between your pregnancies (Munk-Olsen).
- You may feel a bit rusty and out of practice those first few nappying and feeding sessions. It can be hard to get back into baby mode after enjoying the freedom of a more self-sufficient child.
- Baby-care advice is always changing, for example weaning recommendations and vaccination schedules change every few years.
- It may be tough to deal with sleep deprivation and hard to keep up with an energetic toddler when you’re a few years older.
- If your eldest child is four, they will be starting school (reception class in the UK) which is a stressful event in itself. Adding a new sibling to the mix will exacerbate the stress.
- Breastfeeding in front of an older child (who is perhaps a teenager) can feel uncomfortable, but rest assured it's helpful for him to understand that nursing is a normal, healthy process.
- Your children are less likely to play well together - one is creating a Lego castle while the other is trying to eat it.
- When your sociable older child goes to parties and concerts, you’ll struggle with a toddler in tow.
- On family outings, their needs will be different. There is often no way to satisfy both children, all at the same time. You and your partner may find yourselves driven in opposite directions, each with only one child.
- Your children's bond may be weaker. “Having one child followed by a long gap before another child can be like having two singletons. They may grow up having little in common” (Baby Centre). For instance, preteens do not consider themselves in the same league as children, and teenagers feel well above preteens. In most places, children born four years apart will not be together during preschool, junior school, high school, or even college.