When our first child, Liv, was almost two, she asked for a sibling. Good timing, we thought: She’d have a playmate close in age and we could stay in baby land. But as it turned out, Liv was almost five by the time we finally had Jack, proving you can’t always plan when you’ll have kids — no matter how much you practise!
We soon loved the larger age gap. Liv was a proud big sister and she was busy with school and her own interests. Plus, she could fetch a diaper in a pinch. Alas, before we knew it, she morphed into a green-eyed monster: The excitement of a baby couldn’t compete with the five years she had relished as an only child. Three years later, it hasn’t become any easier.
“Baby!” Liv shouts at her younger brother.
“You’re the baby!” Jack retaliates, adding a thump for good measure. Then 11-month-old Finn babbles and smiles, temporarily melting their anger.
Just 2½ years apart, Finn and Jack already seem to enjoy a tighter bond. Jack can’t wait until his little brother gets up in the morning so they can play, and Finn loves his big brother’s loud antics. Liv also adores her youngest sibling, and the feeling is clearly mutual. She lets him crawl all over her, pressing drooly kisses on her face, and will happily entertain him for ages.
What is the ideal spacing between kids? Is it better to have babies close together or wait until they are three years apart? Here’s the scoop from those in the know.
Bouncing back after baby
Physically, it’s best to leave at least 18 months between pregnancies. Studies show that babies conceived within six months of a previous birth have a 40 percent greater chance of being premature, a 61 percent chance of low birth weight and a 26 percent chance of being small for their gestational age. And these risks remain, although to a diminishing extent, for every month up to 17 months. Experts suspect this may be due to mom needing time to recoup the nutritional stores that are zapped by pregnancy and breastfeeding.
Short periods of time between pregnancies may impact mothers’ health as well. Research shows an increased risk of premature rupture of membranes, anemia and maternal death for women who wait less than two years between pregnancies.
So does this mean parents shouldn’t think of having kids close together? Not necessarily, says Carl Corter, a professor and Atkinson Charitable Foundation Chair in Early Child Development and Education at the University of Toronto. “Research points to things parents can think about,” he explains, “but it shouldn’t make them feel guilty or rule their decisions.”
Two under two
Personal choices aside, when we actually have kids is not always in our control — just ask Jennifer Todd. Exactly one year and nine days after having Olivia, Todd delivered Alisha. “Having the girls close together was a definite oops,” laughs the Ottawa mom. “I had just stopped breastfeeding and we weren’t careful enough.”
Besides the less-than-ideal timing, the family wasn’t prepared for the dizzying life shift another baby would bring. “We were living in a two-bedroom house and had just leased a new vehicle that really wasn’t nuclear family- and dog-friendly,” explains Todd.
Cramming two cribs into one bedroom and upgrading to a double stroller were just two of the adjustments the couple had to make. There was also the expense of both babies in diapers and formula for Alisha, since caring for a sleepless newborn at night and an active baby during the day left Todd too exhausted to nurse.
The overwhelmed mom was also missing her support system. She and her husband, Shawn, an OPP officer, were posted to the small northern community of Kirkland Lake, seven hours away from their families. “Poor Olivia. She was only one, and I would talk to her as if she were really a big sister,” describes Todd. “I’d sternly remind her that she should know better than to push or poke her sister — and she couldn’t even walk yet!”
Best friends forever
There’s no question that having kids close in age can feel like an endless run on the treadmill. But once you sweat out the early years, there are often rewards to this crazy pace. The biggest payoff? Lifelong friends, says Kathy Lynn, Vancouver-based parenting educator and Today’s Parent columnist. Once her youngest, Foley, started walking, he and big sister Chelsea, just 14 months his senior, became great pals and remain close today.
Having kids close together also got a lot of that early, physically intense work over more quickly. And once they cleared babyhood, the siblings were able to share most milestones together. “Whatever stage we were in, we were immersed,” explains Lynn. “Preschool, soccer, high school, you name it. We weren’t torn between two stages.”
Todd echoes this sentiment. She also liked that the diaper stage was tackled at the same time and, as the girls grew, the family could hit the road without packing the entire house. Now eight and seven, Olivia and Alisha are the best of friends. “Knowing that they will always have each other makes all the early sleepless nights, back breaking days and endless whining moments all worthwhile,” says Todd.
The waiting game
Charlotte Wardell always envisioned having kids about 2½ years apart. She and her husband, Mark, wanted some time to enjoy their first-born, Julian, now six, and fit in some travelling — much easier with only one child. “Another key thing for me was I wanted to go back to work for a reasonable period before announcing I was once again pregnant,” explains the Vancouver mom, who now lives in the US Virgin Islands.
But by the time Wardell had Max, 2½, a miscarriage and health problems had added another year to the age gap between the boys. Today, Wardell sees toddler Max growing up a lot faster with the influence of a brother almost four years older, and wonders at times whether that’s a good thing. And since the boys are at different stages, Julian is easily frustrated when “the baby” can’t do the same things.
Toronto mom Natalie Leon experiences similar conflict in her own family. Her 16-year-old son, Dante, feels Charlotte, seven, Christian, five, and Braeden, two, rule the roost when it comes to what TV shows to watch and music to play. Choosing a vacation spot that offers something for both teens and tots is also tricky, as is balancing the kids’ widely different extra curricular activities. And don’t talk to her about sleep deprivation.
“With the little ones, we’re up early in the morning, and in the middle of the night when someone is sick or scared,” Leon says. “With a teenager, we also need to stay up late on weekends to make sure he returns home safe and sound, plus one of us ends up spending many nights chauffeuring him back and forth.”
Mother’s little helper
Sure teenagers need ferrying to and fro and often sleep until noon, but they also make great in-house babysitters, says Leon. Dante is a big help to his siblings, especially baby Braeden, and he also acts as a role model. “He is closer in age to them than us, but still old enough to teach his brothers and sister many valuable lessons and expose them to all of the interesting facets of his life,” says Leon.
In return, Leon believes Dante has benefited from having much younger siblings. By helping to raise the babies, she says he’s learned empathy, selflessness and a true sense of caring unusual for kids his age. He also gets to stay a kid a while longer: Leon still catches him singing along to Barney and listening to the childhood books he enjoyed so long ago.
Wardell sees Julian in the same light. As big brother, he’s able to step in and assist Max when needed — showing Max that it is good to help others. And looking back, Wardell believes the bigger age gap is what allowed her to keep her sanity. Instead of a high-need toddler when Max was born, Julian was a more independent preschooler with better reasoning skills.
“I also liked that I could spend one-on-one time with Max while Julian was in a half-day program, and with Julian while Max napped,” she explains.
The final weigh-in
So what’s the magic answer? When it comes to how children develop, there isn’t one, says Corter. His team researched different age gaps as part of a study on how siblings get along, but found there was no universal pattern. Rather, there are many factors that influence family dynamics, including your own childhood experiences. “If you as a first-born loved taking care of your younger sibling, you carry this forth into your expectations and parenting,” he explains.