What no one tells you about child spacing

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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.

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Four Years+ Age Gap
(Your child is 4+ years old when your next baby is born)

Pros:

  • 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).
  • When your kids play together, their play will have more value. ‘Play works best in terms of nurturance when those playing are at different stages in childhood’ (Gray).
  • 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).

Cons:

  • 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.
  • Your older child can feel obliged into babysitting duties. Dr Alan Singer, in his book,Creating Your Perfect Family Size, described this age gap as: “almost like having two separate families – one in which the older child has been the centre of your attention for years, and one in which you may suddenly reframe that child as the perfect built-in babysitter”.
  • 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.
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