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Growing Your Family: What to Expect

family on bed

At her six-week checkup after her daughter Anna Christa was born, Shelly Good-Cook joked with her ob-gyn about getting pregnant right away, but she was in no rush. "We figured it would happen when it happened," says the Alexandria, Virginia, mom. It happened a little sooner than she expected: She gave birth to her second daughter, Alexandra, nine months later.

Although she never planned on having children 10 1/2 months apart, Good-Cook is thrilled with how it's worked out for her family. Whether you want to have another baby right away or wait a long time before diving back into that newborn fog, there are pros and cons no matter how close -- or far apart -- your children are. (Of course, finances or biology might not give you much of a choice about when your next child arrives.) This is what you can expect from every interval.

family pillow fight

What you'll love: You'll get all the hassles of infancy -- diapers, night wakings, struggling with strollers -- over with at once. "When we had Alexandra, people would say, 'Two in diapers? No thanks!" Good-Cook recalls. "My husband and I felt exactly the opposite. We knew once we were out of diapers, we'd never want to look back." You will also treasure the bond that close-in-age siblings have, from playing together as toddlers to sharing friends and secrets as teenagers.

What you won't: Can you say exhaustion? "For the first two years, it was a daily struggle to manage naps and balance a newborn and a needy toddler," says Danielle McIntosh, of Enumclaw, Washington. "It was a really dark time." An even bigger challenge: Most toddlers have difficulty coping with the huge disruption that a new baby brings. "At just 2, my first was old enough to remember when she had me all to herself but not mature enough to know how to deal with her feelings," says Elisa Drake, a mom of two in Chicago. "She was rough with the baby. She hit her and kicked her. She even sat on her. I cried a lot those first months and wondered whether she would always hate her sister."

Make it work for you: Having realistic expectations is key, says child development expert Betsy Brown Braun, author of Just Tell Me What to Say: Sensible Tips and Scripts for Perplexed Parents. "Most parents run into trouble when they think a 2-year-old should be able to share," she says. So expect a lot of sibling rivalry. "The closer children are in age, the more they'll fight."

To minimize resentment, set aside one-on-one time with your older child. Drake says that she would take her older daughter, Haley, for quick outings to the ice cream parlor or the grocery store for some Mommy time. And whenever anyone asked about the baby in front of Haley, Drake would say something like, "Haley, tell them how old you are," so the toddler got some attention too. Drake has also found that although the girls, now 2 and 4, fight a lot, "they insist on sleeping in the same bed and love each other dearly."

For those moments when everyone seems to need you at once, keep an assortment of distractions on hand (such as a toy, a board book, and a little bag of Cheerios), says Michele Borba, author of The Big Book of Parenting Solutions. "I kept a bag of tricks in my purse, in the car, and all over the house," says Borba, who had three children in four years. "That was my sanity saver for a year!"

family on bed

What you'll love: An older child who's more independent means an easier time for you when baby arrives. "My oldest daughter had just turned 3 when her sister was born," says Alison Proffitt, a mother of four in Aberdeen, Ohio. "Not only was she no longer taking a bottle, but she was also potty trained and could sometimes even play by herself, which was a huge help." An older child's greater language skills are also a nice perk. "They can say how they're feeling instead of hitting or hurting," Braun says.

What you won't: "Going back into infant mode was tough," admits Tucker Winter, of Charlottesville, Virginia, whose two children are almost four years apart. And it can be hard for the older child to relate to the younger child, especially once they realize that, far from being a fun playmate, a new baby doesn't do much besides eat, sleep, cry, and poop.

Make it work for you: Take advantage of a 3- or 4-year-old's natural desire to be Mommy's or Daddy's little helper and let your child feel proud of his role as big brother (or big sister), Braun says. And because your older kid is probably ready for preschool, you can arrange the schedule to your benefit. Coordinate school hours with baby's nap so you get some downtime. Or try Borba's counterintuitive approach: "Don't put the older child in preschool during the younger one's nap," she says. "Spend special time with him when the baby is sleeping."

What you'll love: With one child in school when the next arrives, you have the chance to savor the second's babyhood in a way that parents of more closely spaced kids do not. Your older child has a life of her own, with school and friends, which keeps her busy and lessens resentment. "Our daughter was 7 when her little brother was born," says Kelly Stettner, of Springfield, Vermont. "We had lots of time to talk with her about what was happening. The big age difference has also minimized the competition factor -- they each need our attention in different ways." Plus, you're less likely to fall into the comparison trap when kids are so far apart in age. And don't forget the financial advantage: having only one in college (or day care) at a time.

What you won't: "Siblings with this great an age difference may not play together much because they don't have a lot in common," Borba says. That doesn't mean the siblings won't eventually be close, but they may not truly appreciate each other until they're out of college. And while it's natural to rely on your older child to help out, he may resent being cast as the always-available babysitter. " "'Can you watch your brother for a few minutes while I'm on the phone?' gets really old," Borba points out.

Make it work for you: To help your kids form a closer relationship, plan family vacations, holiday traditions, and other bonding experiences that help build a sense of sibling identity. "Family rituals create closeness between kids who otherwise live in very different worlds," Braun says. "Driving around looking at Christmas lights is fun for everyone, and it's the type of thing that kids remember."

The most crucial piece of advice holds true whether nine months or nine years separate your kids. "The most important thing is not the time between the children," Braun says. "It's the relationship each one has with his or her parents. Sibling issues are almost always about each child fearing that the parent has enough room for only one." Give each kid the attention and caring he craves, and you can make the sibling thing work no matter what.

Numerous studies have found that getting pregnant less than 18 months or more than 59 months after a previous birth puts you at a significantly higher risk of delivering prematurely or having a low-birth weight newborn.

What about your health?
Less than six months between pregnancies can mean a higher risk for uterine rupture (if you're going for a vaginal birth after cesarean) and placental problems, as well as a risk for anemia. But spacing pregnancies more than five years apart may increase your risk for preeclampsia or difficult labor.

Originally published in the March 2010 issue of American Baby magazine.

All content on this Web site, including medical opinion and any other health-related information, is for informational purposes only and should not be considered to be a specific diagnosis or treatment plan for any individual situation. Use of this site and the information contained herein does not create a doctor-patient relationship. Always seek the direct advice of your own doctor in connection with any questions or issues you may have regarding your own health or the health of others.