You’ve got one bouncing bundle of joy, and you’ve decided you want a second one – how do you decide what the best age gap is? Clinical psychologist and play therapist Dr Jó-Marié Bothma walks us through the main considerations.
Unless you have decided to only have one child, most couples at some point end up with some uncertainty as to the best age gap between their children. This can be a rather daunting task as there is no golden rule for sibling spacing in general.
There are several things to think about or prepare for as you plan to expand your family. The answer is greatly influenced by your unique family dynamic and what you want for your family.
Emotional and psychological considerations
It is generally found that age gaps 18 months and younger result in siblings who demonstrate less sibling rivalry and play together nicely. One of the main reasons is that the firstborn is too young to have a developed sense of only-child identity and will rarely have memories enjoying all the attention for himself. Having to share attention with another baby would just be part of growing up and will become a natural way of understanding their relationship with their parents.
Children younger than 18 months need to experience their world as a safe place where their needs can be met. If it is possible for parents to have the capacity to foster these feelings in both a toddler and a baby at the same time, chances are slim that there will be any psychological harm done in spacing children so close together.
While close-spaced children may have a very close bond and get along like a house on fire, that very same fire might just be the drawback as well. Having kids so close together can be extremely tiring as they are still so small and have so many intense needs. Everything from diapers, not sleeping through the night, to potty training will be doubled.
Most couples find this a challenging time in their relationship. It would therefore not be wise to consider having another baby so close to the first if you and your partner are still adjusting to the new demands a first baby placed on your relationship. Sometimes the early years are such a blur that you might look back at that time and realise that you have not enjoyed your children as much as you wanted to.
An age gap of 18 months to three years ensures that your toddler is a little out of your arms and becoming more independent, which leaves you with more hands-on time with the new baby. The downside is that this puts you right in the middle of the famous ‘terrible twos’ and ‘horrible threes’ with a toddler busy developing his own sense of identity. Sibling rivalry also tends to be rather strong during these early years.
The upside, however, is that as the children grow older, the age gap tends to work out really well. They are generally close enough in age to enjoy spending time with one another and each other’s friends, and at the same time they can have their own friends and separate interests.
Age gaps of three to five years greatly decrease the possibility of sibling rivalry as the older child is secure in him or herself and quite independent. Developmental challenges such as potty training or going off to pre-primary school have already been faced and conquered, and most children in this age group generally enjoy helping out when the new baby arrives.
The larger gap also provides the parents with more one-on-one time with each of their children. A gap of three years or more, however, might lead to the children not playing so well together in the early years.
There is also unfortunately the possibility that the older child might become jealous of the younger baby or regress to behaviours such as bedwetting or sucking a dummy again. It might be hard to give up one’s title of the ‘only child’ and learn to share attention with someone cute and adorable.
Sibling spacing of more than five years apart can work for families where parents would really like to treasure and enjoy each child as they go through their individual developmental phases. It is however also generally the case that children spaced more than five years apart will be in different developmental phases for most of their schooling career and might have completely different views and interests. Although this does not necessarily mean a recipe for no sibling bonding to take place, it could mean that parents would need to make sure that all members of their family understand and respect each other’s unique needs and viewpoints.
Medical recommendations that shouldn’t be ignored
There are many reasons why couples decide to postpone becoming parents nowadays. Unfortunately, this decision might sometimes take away the luxury of spacing siblings far apart. Women are usually encouraged to hurry along after the age of 35 as fertility tends to decline after this age.
On the other hand, spacing kids close together may be hard to bear physically on the mother’s body and there might be medical reasons why that might not be a healthy decision. A body busy recovering from the previous birth and still breastfeeding might really take serious strain when another pregnancy takes place..
Women who have suffered from gestational diabetes, high blood pressure, post-natal depression and other medical conditions should probably also keep close contact with their medical team and brainstorm with them the best time to try for another pregnancy, taking their recovery time and current medical profile into consideration.
Financial thoughts that should cross your mind
Parents often also consider the age gap of less than two years apart as the best financial decision at that time. Most financial expenses such as cots, prams and diapers as well as daily childcare costs are then all condensed into one time period.
It might even be possible for one parent to leave the workforce altogether for a year or two, instead of leaving and re-entering the job market with every child’s arrival. There will then just be one transition back into becoming a working parent.
Having said that, parents must also be able to consider having children entering formal schooling in quick succession and even the possibility of having two children (or more) entering tertiary education one after the other. It might be that what is financially viable while the children are toddlers, might not be so financially possible once they are older.
Spacing children three years and more apart might give a couple time to get back on their financial feet and return to the workforce at full capacity for a while before going on maternity leave again.
Temperament and sibling spacing
Parents should not underestimate their unique temperament style and how this comes into play when having a baby.
For some the chaos, late nights and no real order to life and its happenings is part of the journey and they seem to take it in their stride. Others become anxious, feel completely out of control and wish they had known how hectic those early months and years would be.
Talk to each other before having another baby and make sure that both are on the same page with regards to the ideal age gap for your unique family.
The best age gap is where both partners can safely agree that they have enough energy and are psychologically stable enough to adequately nurture and love another addition to their family, without the possibility of any serious strain on their medical or financial circumstances, and where the rest of the family members will also still feel loved and treasured.