Not long after the babies in my daughter Mirabel's playgroup turned 1, several moms stopped losing their baby weight and started, well, expanding again. As one woman after another announced that she was pregnant with Baby #2, the rest started wondering aloud: Is it too soon to have the next one? If not now, when? It seemed as if some of us just took the plunge, while others were trying to figure out the optimum timing.
No one needed to ask my opinion -- I was already sporting maternity cargo pants at Mirabel's first-birthday party. I can't claim to have been intentionally ahead of the curve on family planning; I just got, ahem, surprised. But happily so. While I initially panicked about the effects that the arrival of a new baby would have on my family at that point -- will Mirabel be shortchanged on attention? Will I get eight hours of sleep any time in this decade? -- I'm relieved by how well all of us have adapted. Granted, there were some crazy days (and nights), but nearly two years later my daughters are fun-loving buddies, the Lucy and Ethel of the preschool set.
Like me, most women I've talked to about spacing siblings say they can't imagine a better scenario for their family than the one they've got. Still, they also have a lot of wisdom to share about the highs and lows of having their little ones close together or farther apart. If you're feeling conflicted about how long to wait, consider their experiences -- it might help you decide whether you should keep the baby monitor by your bedside and your ExerSaucer in the playroom or stow them in the back corner of your basement for a while longer.
Less Than 2 Years Apart
The Playground Wisdom: With rapid-fire family additions, you'll condense the time you spend in baby mode. For many moms, this is a good thing -- after all, how many times do you want to babyproof your house or shop for the latest breast pump? The nuances of tummy time and teething are fresh in your mind when number two (or three!) comes along. "I was already doing diapers, so the learning curve was not that big," says Janerl Lampson, of Bakersfield, California, whose first two children are 16 months apart. "I would have loved twins -- I'm the kind who says, if you're already doing it, you might as well do it more." Then, too, women who tried for a long time to conceive their first child or those who marry after 30 may be motivated to pick up the baby pace before that pesky biological clock becomes a factor.
The Highs: If you can embrace the intensity, you may be rewarded within a year or so with kids who entertain each other well and are nicely in sync when it comes to toys and activities. Many moms also find that kids under 2 tend to be less jealous of a new sibling. "My girls are always with each other," says Dara Federman, a Brooklyn mom of two, ages 3 and 2. "Eliana said the other day that she wants to live with Leah forever."
The most surprising benefit of this spacing? Money. While you may dread double costs with back-to-back kids, remember that plenty of activities such as dance classes, camps, and even some preschools offer discounts for younger siblings. The biggest relief may come at college time. Families with two or more kids in school at the same time are generally expected to make a smaller contribution to tuition, which in turn could lead to more financial aid in the form of grants and loans.
The Lows: Hello, chaos. Sometimes it may seem that your kids are coordinating their daily tantrums, potty accidents, and whiny spells to keep you from getting any breaks. "The first two years were really tough," says Susan Hayden, of Seattle, the mother of Charlie, 5, and Clara, 4. "Someone was always sick or not sleeping. I think I missed out on really enjoying a lot of their stages because we were always in 'crisis mode.'"
Your marriage may get tested in these early days, too, with both parents feeling spread thin by the treadmill of feedings, laundry, and sleepless nights.
Expert Wisdom: Even if your older child doesn't seem jealous, he may start acting out because of all the disruption to his little world. "A 1- to 2-year-old may not be able to articulate his feelings or even understand why he's confused and angry," says Valerie Maholmes, PhD, a child-development expert at the National Institutes of Health's Institute of Child Health and Human Development. Take care to cuddle both kids so no one feels left out. "When you're cuddling the baby and your older child is in the room, you can say, 'Let me tell you about your big brother -- he knows how to do lots of neat things!' Then give some examples like stacking blocks or kicking a ball," says Adele Faber, coauthor of Siblings Without Rivalry.
Harmony-at-Home Tip: Don't be afraid to ask for help -- from your husband, your parents, or a babysitter who can offer both a break for you and some extra attention for your toddler. "Take things slower," says Courtney Kennedy, of Emmaus, Pennsylvania, the mom of three closely spaced kids. "You'll need every ounce of energy to keep yourself and the kids happy."
2 to 4 Years Apart
The Playground Wisdom: This close-but-not-too-close gap is meant to preserve everyone's sanity. You've logged enough sleep since Baby #1 arrived that you can think about a 2 a.m. feeding without whimpering, but it hasn't been so long that you've forgotten your swaddling technique. You've also gained enough perspective to fine-tune your parenting philosophy. (Note to self: Don't let Baby #2 get used to a daily two-hour drive for his afternoon nap.) Big bonus: You and your husband may have even found time for regular date nights again.
The Highs: With your older child heading off for a day of finger-painting at preschool, you'll get the freedom to bond with your new bambino. "I didn't realize how nicely the spacing would work in terms of individual time with each of my children," says Jennifer Page, a Tulsa mother of three kids spaced three to four years apart. "It's funny how different the kids are one-on-one as opposed to when we're all together."
Meanwhile, siblings are still close enough in age to enjoy some of the same toys and games, and many moms say the older child is a built-in mentor for both physical and verbal development. "I'm always surprised at how much further ahead A.J. is than Kobe was at the same age," says Kelley Thompson, of Flower Mound, Texas, about her 4- and 7-year-old sons. "A.J. has a big brother to keep up with. He walked earlier, plus he's showing much more finesse at soccer, thanks to Kobe's teaching him what to do. Now they actually play together."
Careerwise, a two- to four-year age gap between kids may be ideal, assuming that you're doing classic maternity leaves and then returning full-time to your job. "This spacing let me concentrate on learning to be a mother for a few years while at the same time continuing to work hard at my career," says Mary Plaza, a Basking Ridge, New Jersey, insurance consultant and mother of three kids born three years apart. If you want to stay home until the kids are school-age, a tighter spacing is best for consolidating your career time-out.
The Lows: For some moms, this revolving door -- from baby to toddler mode, and then back again -- can make you feel like you're in a very smelly remake of Groundhog Day. "Except for a few months along the way," says mom-of-three Page, "I have been changing diapers now for almost 10 years!" This age gap between kids can be especially vicious regarding naptime -- your older child will be outgrowing his siesta just when you really need that afternoon break again.
It's also tough to ask for babysitting help when you have a rambunctious toddler and a new baby. "When my older child was little, finding someone to watch her for an hour or two was a snap. Family would line up to offer," says Jeri Ann Hall, a Memphis mom of two kids two years apart. "But a toddler and a baby -- and when they get older, a 5-year-old and a 3-year-old -- well, no one flat-out refuses, but they definitely make it clear they should be our last resort."
Expert Wisdom: Your firstborn may have a hard time adapting to the new-baby routine -- she was used to having you all to herself and now, whenever you're not free to play with her, she may become frustrated. As a result, your older child may pull some mean-kid moves on the new baby -- either out of curiosity or downright hostility -- but your reactions to her behavior can nip sibling rivalry in the bud. "Constantly telling your toddler 'No' may foster jealousy, because you'll be seen as taking the baby's 'side,'" says Linda Sonna, PhD, a child psychologist and author of The Everything Parent's Guide to Raising Siblings. Immediately discipline any aggressive acts, but quickly shift the emphasis to showing big sib how to handle -- and enjoy -- her new brother or sister.
Harmony-at-Home Tip: Getting your preschooler to help with the baby makes her feel like an important member of the family. "Megan liked getting bottles, diapers, and wipes," says Page. "We'd also sing songs to calm Macy when she cried, and I even assigned Megan 'babysitting' duties, like dancing while Macy was in her bouncy chair."
5 Years Apart or More
The Playground Wisdom: Whether your intention was to wait awhile between kids or time just flew by, there are big winners with this spacing. Your kids each get the benefits of being an only child -- lots of individual attention -- but also the companionship of a sibling, even if they're not super-tight. Meanwhile, you get to focus on each child with more freedom. "I definitely feel like I'm getting to know my kids as individuals," says Mary Ann Guman, a mother of three from Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, who had an eight-year break between her firstborn and her second. Lisa Laurente, of Bakersfield, California, who has three kids -- ages 12, 10, and 5 -- agrees: "A large gap between children has allowed me to cherish the moments I have with my youngest child."
The Highs: Like Cher on a comeback tour, you're a little older but smarter and more confident. "I'm not as frazzled as I was with my two older children," says Laurente. "I have a more patient take on parenting. I've learned not to sweat the small stuff." Your husband will likely feel the same way too. As a couple, you've had years to practice being a united front for the kids while also making time for each other, so this spacing may be the easiest on your marriage.
Your firstborn may get a boost too. Laurente says her older kids were mature enough to really pitch in. "They learned to be more independent and help each other."
Meanwhile, don't write off the buddy potential. "I didn't know whether a 4-year-old and 10-year-old would want to spend a lot of time together, but the kids play, and sometimes fight, like the best of friends," says Lachelle Nettles from Dripping Springs, Texas. Your little one gets a more sophisticated mentor than he would with a sibling closer in age. As they grow up together, the older child can help guide his younger sibling through the world of playground rules, schoolwork, cliques, and lots more.
The Lows: You're commuting every day between Kid Nation -- with grade-school obligations and evening Little League -- and Planet Baby, which requires that you carry a cubic ton of gear, and likely a fussy infant, everywhere you go. "It was quite an adjustment," says Laurente, of returning to diapers and naps after such a long break. "I didn't think about how exhausted I'd be trying to entertain a toddler while attending baseball games." That may mean less time and energy for baby-friendly "Mommy and Me" activities.
Financially, this spacing has some downfalls. Your stroller and car seat will be out-of-date, so you'll need all new gear.
Expert Wisdom: Forget jealous -- your older child might act positively bitter. "The arrival of a new baby can be more difficult for someone who's been an only child for a long time," says Dr. Maholmes. "You have nine months to prepare him; use this time to talk about all the good and potentially tough changes coming."
Harmony-at-Home Tip: The baby will get plenty of the spotlight, so remember to dote on your former only. "Abby loves to read bedtime stories to her little sisters," says Guman, "but we also give her special privileges like letting her stay up a little later at night. She likes to just hang out with us."
Used with permission from Parents magazine.