Just when you thought you were done with the incessant "When are you going to have a baby?" question, along comes the follow-up: "When will you give that precious little one a brother or sister?" Sheesh!
Of course, there's no universally ideal spacing between siblings. There's also nothing wrong with stopping at one bundle if you want. The number of single-child families has nearly doubled, to about 1 in 5, since the '70s, and, despite the stigma, research suggests that onlies are as happy and social as kids with siblings are. "It's about knowing in your gut that the choice you make will allow you to be a great parent," says Susan Stiffelman, a psychotherapist in Malibu, California, and author of Parenting Without Power Struggles: Raising Joyful, Resilient Kids While Staying Cool, Calm and Connected. If you do want to expand your fam, but are unsure of when, we've highlighted the reasons to space your kids out or have them close together.
Reasons to Wait
You need a break.
Making it through pregnancy is challenge enough, and soldiering through it while trailing a tantrum-y toddler can feel like you're a new contestant on The Amazing Race (but instead of prize money, you get a squawking infant). In fact, the March of Dimes advises moms to wait 18 to 23 months between giving birth and conceiving to recover, physically and emotionally -- upping the odds of a healthy pregnancy and newborn. "Babies require a lot of attention, so having them close in age can be incredibly stressful on your mind and body," says Ari Brown, M.D., a pediatrician in Austin, Texas, and coauthor of Baby 411. Jamie Ratner, of Bethesda, Maryland, founder of CertifiKid.com, learned that fast: "My kids are 19 months apart, and the first year with the two of them was hell," says the mom of 4-year-old Noah and 2-year-old Lila. "I was barely sleeping and couldn't take my eyes off them." That's exactly the kind of stress Jennifer Spengler, mom of 13-year-old Kyra, 9-year-old Mila, and 3-year-old Evie in La Jolla, California, wanted to avoid. "Having a few years between each pregnancy has made life a little easier and more enjoyable for all," she says. "I could spend time individually with each of my kids as an infant and toddler. Plus, I was able to play on a women's soccer team, take classes at the local university, and work part-time."
You have a tight budget.
It's often said that a lack of funds shouldn't stop you from having a baby. For some parents, though, it is a factor in postponing one. A child in today's economy costs an average of $286,050 to raise (before college), according to the United States Department of Agriculture, and that's conservative by plenty of parents' estimates. "Having two children close in age is expensive," says Mary Baehr, of Bristow, Virginia, mom of 4-year-old Madeline and 2-year-old Celia. One of her top concerns? Paying two preschool tuitions at the same time. And doubling up on big-ticket items such as cribs and car seats can certainly take a bite out of your wallet.
You'd rather not play referee.
"Kids who are close in age may be fighting over a toy or vying for your attention, and that can be exhausting for the parents," Dr. Brown says. Just ask Jamie Martin, of New Haven, Connecticut, a SteadyMom.com blogger and mama of 8-year-old Trishna, 7-year-old Jonathan, and 6-year-old Elijah: "We have our share of squabbles. All three often need attention at the same time." If parents don't mediate the disputes, the problems could get worse. "I've worked with a lot of people whose parents didn't step in when their sibling was pummeling them, and the damage can last a lifetime," says Frances Walfish, Psy.D., a child psychotherapist in Beverly Hills, California and author of The Self-Aware Parent: Resolving Conflict and Building a Better Bond With Your Child. "So many parents today say, 'I want them to work out their issues themselves,'" Dr. Walfish says. "You can't do that when children are closely spaced. You don't have to resolve the conflict, but you need to teach them how to work it out by modeling cooperation."
Reasons to Go for It
You'll limit diaper days.
Sure, it's Crazy Town, but when you have your kids close together, you can blow through the mayhem in a few years instead of dragging it out for a decade (or more!). The baby and toddler stages are intense but short. "Hold on to the perspective that you're in the thick of it now and that demands will be extreme for a while, and then they'll subside," Stiffelman says. And when they do, you can relish this happy facet of having back-to-back babes: The closer your kids are in age, the more interests they're likely to share, and the more you can do together as a family. "My kids enjoy the same books," Martin says. "Also, it's wonderful to be able to travel as a family now that they're older without having any toddlers in tow."
You'll get some savings.
If the day-to-day costs are doable for you now, you may save in the long run. When your kids are close together in age, you'll have fewer total hours of day care and babysitting and a shorter stint as a stay-at-home mom if you go that route. Plus, there are all those two-for-the-price-of-one deals! Being able to buy diaper wipes and other items in bulk can help. What's more, many child-care centers and kid-focused activities and classes offer sibling discounts.
You'll raise best buds.
"The camaraderie from having a live-in playmate is more apt to happen the closer in age the kids are," Stiffelman says. Yes, they're more prone to bicker and compete, which is why your guidance and attention are so crucial. As long as you moderate, the rewards can be great. "My kids are best friends," Ratner says of her 2- and 4-year-old. "They play together well and my younger one is learning so much from her brother."
So perhaps the lesson is that it's not always the spacing that dictates how close the siblings will be or how challenging their parents will find raising them, but the temperaments of each person, Dr. Brown says. If the family you now have feels complete, or your gut tells you another child would stretch even one of you beyond your limits, why rock that boat? You can always reevaluate in a year or two. If, on the other hand, you feel confident in your family's ability to adapt to a new addition...don't give away that Pack 'n Play just yet.
Originally published in the March 2012 issue of American Baby magazine.
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