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The Art and Science of Child Spacing

Tick Tock, the Biological Clock

In the first sleep-deprived weeks after the arrival of a new baby, planning the next bundle of joy is the furthest thing from most mothers’ minds. But eventually, the ticking of the biological clock begins to be heard over baby’s cries, the pain of labor fades to a distant memory, and it’s time to start thinking about creating another miracle. Exactly when the alarm clock starts ringing varies from woman to woman.

The way a woman feels about child spacing before she becomes a mother is not necessarily the way she will feel once spit-up cloths are a staple of her wardrobe. And no matter how carefully a mother plans the spacing of her children, Mother Nature may have other plans in store. Nursing mothers are frequently unable to conceive for the first six months of nursing, and some women don’t ovulate for the entire time they lactate.

Ideal Spacing

Is there an ideal amount of time to wait between children? A study published in the New England Journal of Medicine suggests that parents should wait 18 to 23 months after a full-term birth before conceiving again. The average age gap between siblings in America is about two and a half years—which means that the average parent has been following this advice. It’s important to note, however, that this study was only concerned with the ideal waiting period for the physical health of the infant—to reduce the risk of premature birth and low birth weight. Many parents consider a host of other factors when deciding how to space their children.

Babies Close Together

“I wanted my children close in age for a few reasons,” says Lisa, 34, mother of two children who are 20 months apart. “I thought if they were close in age they would enjoy each other more and have more in common. So far, my children are best friends as well as great playmates. Also, having them close in age really prevented any struggles in adjustment with my older child, as she was practically a baby when my second child was born.”

Julia, a 33-year-old mother of four, also chose to space her children close together. “It is incredibly rewarding,” she says. “My two oldest are 20 months apart and the two youngest are 15 months apart. The oldest was 6 when the last one was born. We deliberately had two and two so they would grow up with a sibling very close in age.” But, she cautions, “Having children close together is very difficult. The first years are the hardest, in my opinion.”

This is the typical complaint of parents who have children very close in age—getting past the hard part is, well, hard. But some parents find it easiest to go through the nighttime waking and endless diaper changes all at once. Margaret, age 40, concurs. She says she chose to have children close together “because I wanted them to be able to enjoy each other throughout their lives, to share experiences, toys, clothes and fun—but also, because we wanted to ‘get over’ the special challenges of the baby/toddler years as quickly as practical.”

But if a second pregnancy takes you by surprise, it can be exhausting. Cheryl, 33, describes herself as “a mom with a 2-year-old and a 6-month-old who has been awake for the past six months.” She warns, “If you are thinking of having your children be less than two years apart, don’t do it! You will never have a moment to yourself!”

If you make it through the tough times and come out alive, most veteran moms of close-in-age kids agree you’ll be happy. “Now that our boys are ages 3 and 5, we really see the impact of our decision,” Margaret says. “They are best buddies. They play together famously. They attend the same preschool/kindergarten and help each other in their mixed-ages Montessori classroom.”

Some moms see another benefit to spacing children close together: “I simply didn’t want to have any children after I was 33,” Lisa says. “Perhaps it’s selfish, but I don’t want teens or college-aged children in my home when I’m retirement aged.”

Babies Further Apart

Parents who choose to space their children further apart have different issues. Although Sheri, mom of five, didn’t make a conscious decision about child spacing, she has witnessed its effects firsthand. “The biggest space is between the first and the second (2 years, 7 months). The others are all less than two years apart. One thing I noticed is that there is far less sibling rivalry between the younger four than there is between the oldest and any or all of them.”

Sal, 29, has two daughters who are seven years apart. “In some ways it works fine,” she says. “My oldest is much more help and better appreciates having a sibling. But it’s also bad, because the little one messes with the older one’s stuff, and the older one gets tired of being ‘big sister helper.’ They are on very different play levels.”

If children are separated by a decade or more, they can grow up not feeling like siblings. “My sister is 11 years older than I, and she was more like a babysitter to me,” says Ellie, 43. “I never intended to do the same thing to my own kids, but it happened. My oldest is 21, and she moved out last year when her brother was 9. They barely know each other.” But she concedes that having a permanent babysitter was a big help when her son was an infant.

Spacing children more than a decade apart usually involves some risk—as mom gets older, the risk of miscarriage and certain birth defects increases. But if you begin your family in your early 20s, you can plan on large gaps between children without much risk.

Bear in mind that Mother Nature doesn’t always go along with your plans for child spacing. Like so many things in parenting, it’s important to stay flexible and welcome each new child into your home with love.

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