Mind the Gap: The Pro’s and Con’s of Sibling Age Gaps
Do you have more than one kiddywink? If you were asked to advise someone wanting to take the plunge from one to two children, or so on, what would you recommend regarding age spacing? A close age gap or a larger one? What has worked for your family? And what are the pro’s and con’s of differing age gaps?
Every family is unique and there are a myriad of different factors that affect sibling age gaps. Every parent is different and there is no one size fits all solution. The success of different age spacings is also largely is affected by the combination of children. Are they easy going children or more intense? Are they good sleepers or could they improve in the sleep department?
It’s worth noting that for many couples the age spacing between siblings it isn’t a choice. Sadly many couples experience miscarriages or lose a baby later in pregnancy or after birth. And sometimes conceiving can either happen more quickly than planned or can just take time. But if you could have a choice what would you choose?
In our family we have had a wider gap between one and two (with several losses in between). There were 3 years and 4 months between number one and number two, which worked out to be a very nice age gap. It was probably perfect for us in that my husband finished working very long hours in his job training before number two was born. Number one just managed to toilet train himself (despite us trying everything toilet training strategy under the sun and tearing our hair out) just before his sister arrived on the scene. And despite the stereotypes, our number one and two children play well together (most of the time). A year later and we were expecting again, and this time we had a slim 21 months between number two and number three.
Which was easier? Unreservedly, the larger age gap was easier. We coped fine with a close age gap and enjoyed it, however it was busy! But I am glad that our last two were close in age. Being both of the same gender it has worked out rather well. Possibly the most difficult aspect of a close age gap was having a 12 month old (who wasn’t walking or sleeping) and then being very ill in pregnancy. Now that they are two and nearly four, it is really nice.
Today the trend does seem to be for smaller age gaps, possibly because many of us are a little older than what we may have been in previous generations. I don’t consider myself to be an older mother and medically speaking I wasn’t, but I was significantly older than my grandmother was when she had her children. The sensitive topic of childbearing age could be the subject of another blog post entirely, as I don’t think that people always ‘delay marriage and childbearing’ as is commonly thought. Sometimes it takes time to meet the right man, right ladies? And for ladies who are a little more mature, if one can have one, two, three, or four children in quick succession, what a blessing. Especially so as this is not always possible, the older one gets.
But it isn’t easy to have children closely spaced, and I know that people often pity the parents when there is a close age gap, however they tend to pity the children when there is a larger spacing. Any child however, can have his nose put out of joint when a sibling comes along, regardless of the age gap. British psychologist and author Oliver James asserts however, that “a child’s capacity to cope with the blow is vitiated by being older.” Our experience (and it is of course, only our experience) would support this. We found that our three year old coped better than our one year old with the arrival of a new sibling.
The benefits of age when it comes to coping with the arrival of a new sibling are various, he argues. “Being older, you’ll have speech. You’ll have a mental life, and a capacity to represent your thoughts to yourself. You’re less likely to just be in the grip of your emotions.” says James. Furthermore, “You’ll also have the capacity to initiate relationships with anyone else who might be around – your father, for example. There’s a simple logic to it, really.” However, many parents take a different view, and have found that younger children adjust better to the introduction to a new sibling.
And the question of sibling rivalry? Many researchers argue that sibling rivalry can cut both ways. At its best, point out Adele Faber and Elaine Mazlish in the introduction to ‘Siblings without Rivalry’ (Sidgwick & Jackson), “siblings [can] become tougher and more resilient … From their verbal sparring, they learn the difference between being clever and being hurtful. From the normal irritations of living together, they learn how to assert themselves, defend themselves, compromise.” Sibling rivalry at its worst, however, “[can] seriously demoralise one or both of the children and even cause permanent damage.”
In a nutshell, here are some of the main pro’s and con’s of different age spacings.
From a parental perspective having children under two years apart in the early years can be a boatload of work and can ‘get a little crazy.’. The early years may pass in a blur of breast feeding, sleepless nights, and Mt Washmore laundry piles. Research also suggests that closely spaced children can also lead to chronic stress in caregivers. Several friends who have experienced three children close together have said that they really wouldn’t recommend this. It can be lovely but tough going, tiring and intense, especially with two in nappies. I have know many who have planned an eighteen month age gap, and then have decided on a larger gap if they decide to go for number three.
I have also been reminded recently of how testing it can be when two children are at a similar stage of development. One is just coming out of the tantruming stage and one is just entering it. Their are fairy dress fights, ballet shoe battles and tutu tantrums. In short, there is never a dull moment! But I have had friends who have had four children in five years. How they did it I really do not know, but they have done a great job and they are still sane!
Perhaps the advantage of closer age gaps is that they can be ready playmates (even though closely spaced children can also fight more, although my eldest fight quite a lot and they are not closely spaced!). 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. When they are older, they may attend at the same school at the same time, and may be more likely to have similar activities, making it easier for the cash dispensing taxi driver (aka mum or dad).
Interestingly. studies have shown that girls benefit intellectually from closer-spaced sibling age gaps. However the reverse is true for boys (Rosenberg and Sutton-Smith). However, I wouldn’t take too much stock of this, as I know families of closely spaced boys who are doing very well academically. Other research demonstrates that the closer the age gap, the more creative your children are likely to be, regardless of gender (Baer et al).
This is the most common age gap, allowing the mother more spacing between pregnancies. With an age gap of 2-3 years you wil remember how to care for a newborn, while having the confidence that comes with being a more experienced mother. At two, your first born is now more capable of waiting to have his or her needs met. She or he may or may not be toilet trained, and your first born may be going through the ‘terrible two’s while you have a newborn. Your children may play reasonably well together. Interestingly, a two year age gap has been shown to enhance the older child’s ability in maths and in reading (Notre Dame University). But sibling jealousy may be at its worse than it would be with a smaller or larger age gap (Cave and Fertleman 2012).
3 or more years
Many parents recommend the three year age gap, It is a very comfortable gap. To have a three year old when you have a newborn is possibly easier in many ways that if your older child is one or two. By the time your second baby arrives, you may have caught up on some sleep, and with a larger age gap some parents report “enjoying their children more” because they are able to concentrate on each child without feeling constantly under pressure.
A larger age gap can alleviate the competition that sometimes ensues between closer aged siblings. An older child may be more gentle with his/her sibling (although that wasn’t the case in our family!).
But some say that it can be complicated to meet the needs of children at different stages of development. One is trying to build a complex lego construction while the other is trying to eat it. And it can be challenging getting back into the baby years when you have had more self-sufficient children.
Five years or more
There is good news for those having an age gap of five or more years as research suggests that this is even more stress-free. However, 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.
Depending on how many children you have, with a large age gap you may have a teenager and a toddler under your roof at the same time, which could be fun! Interestingly, Plunket (the child health organisation in NZ) see mothers who have had a five or more year age gap between number one and number two as a first time parent, as they may have forgotten things and they may feel a little rusty.
And as you are the one bringing new life into the world, it may be wise to consider:
The affect of closely spaced pregnancies is something worth considering. Obstetricians recommend having a two year gap or more ideally, as having babies less than two years apart is not optimal for growing healthy placentas and can foster the development of pregnancy complications. The shorter the interval between pregnancies, the higher the SIDS rate (American SIDS Institute). Closely spaced pregnancies mean that 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).
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 an age 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). In short, your body requires a full two years to recover from a singleton pregnancy and birth.
And there are the emotional implications. Some parents cope well with children close together and some find it more challenging, depending on parental personality, how you cope with sleep deprivation, whether you have had post-natal depression and how much support you have. Not to mention what else is going on in your life and how many hours you and/or your partner work per week. If you are going to have children closely spaced you may require more support.
And there are career implications too. Mothers who wish to resume a career or need to go back to work may wish to have their children closely spaced if possible.
In conclusion, perhaps the notion of an ideal age gap is a myth. We don’t need to worry too much about the psychological impact of a small or large sibling age gap. Both small and large age gaps have their benefits and challenges. And at the end of the day, even if your family spacings aren’t quite what you imagined, you will make the best of it and will embrace the benefits, celebrating the dynamics in your family.