Child Spacing: What is Optimal?

The subject of family building can be an intimate, sometimes complex one. There is much to consider:  the how (especially for those contending with a history of infertility and/or pregnancy loss); the how many; and the how far apart. The how far apart has been on my mind lately, specifically as it relates to how sibling spacing might affect my health or the attachment my husband and I have been nurturing with our toddler.

I seem to recall stumbling across, at some point whilst poring through parenting lit during my pregnancy,  the recommendation for a sibling interval of 3 years. But couldn’t remember where I read this, nor why 3 years was supposedly so optimal. So, I set out recently to unearth the source and the support for this recommended interval.

I could not find any solid info on this supposedly ideal 3 year birth spacing or how it specifically relates to health or to attachment. In fact, I never really discovered a magic number. I’m sure you won’t be surprised to hear that it is not really that simple. For some families, a subsequent pregnancy happens unexpectedly. For other families there is pointed pressure to begin attempting to further grow their family as soon as possible. As we all know, “ideal” can be tricky to define. And there is much that is outside of our control.

In exploring the health implications of birth spacing, I found recommended figures all over the place: 12 months or greater; 2 years; 3-5 years. But I found this research limited in its personal applicability and insight. Some researchers failed to control for behavioral risk factors such as smoking, substance abuse, and poverty, each of which can contribute to poor maternal and neonatal outcomes. Other research was conducted in developing nations with profound maternal and neonatal morbidity and mortality rates.  Not exactly apples to apples, you know?

I didn’t really find any prescriptive birth spacing for optimal attachment either. None of the research I read felt exactly relevant to my family’s circumstances.  This Strollerderby post was an interesting take on the benefits of birth spacing. I found this post at the Attached Family to be an especially thoughtful take on sibling spacing and its effects on family dynamic, too. This Q&A also presented helpful considerations.

After all of my searching and contemplating, the real takeaway nugget of insight for me is this: my family, our needs, and our lifestyle are unique.Who knows our son better than my husband and me? Who knows our patience, energy levels, support system and financial wellness better than us?  We know our ourselves better than any researcher, better than any kind of attachment theory. Eventually we will know when our family is ready to add to the pack, and when that time arrives we will create our own “ideal.”

What do you consider ideal sibling spacing to be? How far apart are your children? You and your siblings? How has this affected your relationship with your parents and siblings?

photo credit: goldberg, Flickr Creative Commons

Rhianna is currently living her ideal in St. Louis with her handsome mate and their exuberant 17 month old son, whose current favorite library book is titled ‘Me & My Sister.’  After reading it, oh, about one hundred times in the last three days, they’re starting to wonder if he’s trying to tell them something.

14 thoughts on “Child Spacing: What is Optimal?

  1. Apparently my children will be 22 months apart. I had no idea about any ideal spacing, I just knew that I was not getting any younger and that we wanted two children. I do get scared sometimes thinking how we will manage, considering we have no one to help us out near by (or even far by, but that is another matter :-)). I nevertheless have this firm conviction that somehow we will make it work. We love each other, love children, especially our children, :-), there will be tough times, but also great ones. And also, I am so sure that when the children sleep through the night, I will often wake up to check on them. 🙂
    Glad to read you again.

    1. I think having some fear about how it will all gel (with your sanity intact) is SO normal, Mina. Didn’t you feel that way about G some days? How on Earth are the two of us going to come out on the other side of this whole? My GAWSH, I know I did. And, somehow, we manage. The tough stuff relents a little, we adjust our expectations, we grow a little. You can do it, Mama. You will surprise yourself with your crazy mama skillz. And seriously: “ideal” is YOUR ideal. No one else’s. 🙂

  2. Aldort suggests a 4-7 year gap. My guys are 25 months apart and if I had to do it over I’d leave more wiggle room! At #2’s birth I had 2 nursing, 2 in diapers, 2 cosleeping. Very very challenging for all of us but especially brutal on #1. I now believe I was being selfish, or at the very least I was putting my idea of what I wanted my family to look like ahead of #1’s immediate needs. Plus I was nervous that conceiving would take a long time but it took 1 month. Oops 🙂 Anyway speaking from the other side, I can really see the wisdom of 4 years distance for sure. Good luck!

    1. Yeah, that’s precisely where my struggle socks me in the gut: could I adequately honor my son’s (high-ish) needs with my attention so intensely divided? I feel like we’re just now starting to really establish a cozy groove, and I want very much to be able to dwell in that for the time being.

      Thanks for the Aldort reference! I did find this brief Q&A from Mothering magazine in which Aldort talks about child spacing and sibling relationships, in case anyone is interested:

  3. “For other families there is pointed pressure to begin attempting to further grow their family as soon as possible.” This is where we are. We are freaking out that we need to start ASAP, because what if it takes YEARS again, even though we know our diagnosis now and have an RE we trust? The flip side of that, is what if it *magically* happens and I have two kinds under two? I had a false positive BFP about two months ago and I had a panic attack, so… clearly not emotionally ready even though my brain is telling me not to screw around. I would *love* to be able to plan my child spacing, but it is just simply not an option. I don’t even know if a sibling for HGB is, frankly.

    Also… I was planning on writing about this in the near future over at that other place! Mind bullets?

    1. I know, man. Family planning = luxury some of us just ain’t got. On some days I can get totally get lost in that rabbit hole with you. But, you know what? Each of us, we’re kickass, capable mamas (and papas). Whatever happens, we’ll manage. If for nothing else on some days than we’ll simply have to, you know? Though I’ll wager that we’ll probably manage quite happily and gratefully.

  4. My sister and I are 4 and a half years apart, and we had a tough time growing up. I think that spacing was rough…too far apart for us to really have much common ground, and too close together for me to really be seen as “an elder”, if you know what I mean. (It didn’t matter if mom left me in charge, it was always, “you’re just my sister, I don’t have to listen to you.”) We were not too close then, and sadly, we are not too close now. (Don’t get me wrong, I love her dearly, but even now, our shared family is about the only common ground we have.)

    My husband and his brother, on the other hand, are only 13 months apart, and they are best friends. They had their normal sibling fights and rivalries, but they are now and have always been *friends*. I envy his relationship with his brother, their shared interests, their easy camaraderie. I knew that that sort of friendship is what I wanted for my children, though I wasn’t about to intentionally put myself through back-to-back pregnancies like that. (Their mom didn’t do it intentionally either; she tells me that my husband is the best surprise she’s ever had!) We decided to space our children about 2 years apart, and God seemed to agree with us because we have two beautiful girls, only 2 weeks shy of being exactly 2 years apart. And so far, so good! They’re friends, and play well together–when we’re not working on learning how to share.

    The tricky question for us, now, is when to have the next one, because ideally, I’d like to have another 2 years after that! That way there won’t be a middle child to be left out of things, there will always be an even number. Besides, my husband and I both want a big family. 🙂

    1. I could totally have written your first paragraph. I feel exactly the same about my sister, 4.5 years younger than me. I kept waiting for us to be “at the same place in our lives” – when I was in middle school, she was in grade school; when I was in high school, she was in middle school; then I was in college and she was in high school; and so on. Now we’re both years out of college and are still acquaintances at best.

      For my family, we wanted two closer together than 4.5 years. Life circumstances seemed to make it that we’d have kids who were 3 years apart, but then actually conceiving #2 did not go as planned and now the kids will be 4 years apart. But i have to say, as we approached what i know would have made 4.5 years apart, I got really stressed about it. I do not want a repeat of my own childhood sibling dynamics.

  5. When my son turned 1, I started looking for articles on spacing because I still couldn’t imagine adding another baby into the mix. I still can’t.

    I have many examples of siblings ending up every which way!! I’m 14 months younger than my brother and it was really tough early on for my mom. We get along great, but he lives in Arkansas and I live in Florida. I hardly even feel like I have a sibling these days since he is so busy with school and work. He hasn’t been home in almost a year. My husband, on the other hand, is a twin and he doesn’t get along with his brother at all. My cousins are all 3 years apart and very close.

    For me, I am SO GLAD we have waited because I would be overwhelmed if we hadn’t waited. This is also coming from someone who had high needs baby with horrible teething that started at 3 months. He constantly nursed and needed to be held. There is no way I could do what I’m doing with him these days if I had another high needs baby. Well, I could do it, but there would be a lot of crying involved and I cannot take crying. Of course, I could have an easier baby next time and laugh that I was at all worried. Since we cannot predict our child’s personality, I’m not comfortable putting myself in a position where I might be overwhelmed. Plus, my son nurses so much, I still don’t have fertility signs!

    That being said, I do understand other parents have different desires or they are racing against the clock.

  6. I think for our family, 3-4 years will be the hoped for spacing. I really (perhaps selfishly) enjoy my time with my daughter and getting to know her. Like you, Rhianna, I feel like we’re just now getting in a groove, and I hate to throw a curveball in the mix. I love our little 3 person family and so I’m in no rush. Plus, I figure we can still travel and do stuff that might be tougher with 2+ kids.

    As to the whole spacing dilemma of whether my kids will be friends or not as they age…..I think that has more to do with parenting style than the actual kids. My husband grew up in a family that emphasized the importance of brotherly bond over any other. Subsequently, he is “best friends” with his two older brothers who are 3.5 and 7 years older than him, respectively. So bottom line, what do we teach our kids about their relationship with their siblings?

    Great post, Rhianna!

  7. This is a great post. I’ve been thinking a lot about this. One point you didn’t bring it up (it’s impossible to mention all aspects of any one idea in a single post) is what happens when two parents are not of like minds on the subject. I’ve been in counseling with my partner for over six months trying to come to an agreement about when to have another baby. We finally started trying again, eight months too late for me and probably six too soon for him. Our financial instability isn’t helping things either. I definitely didn’t think that family building and planning would be so consistently hard for us, especially when it seems to easy for some. But it helps to know that no one really has it all figured out, at least most of us don’t anyway.

  8. My daughter is about to turn 9. My son is currently 16 days old. I would have loved to have them a lot closer, but her autism, epilepsy and physical disabilities coupled with 8 miscarriages, made this perfect. She’s fully potty trained now, able to get herself dressed (mostly) by herself and is eating on her own now. I think that any sooner would have made this a heck of a lot harder. I think spacing is really an individual thing. 🙂

    1. Fully agreed, Jen. I genuinely feel that we all know (or will eventually understand) what our individual “ideal” is. Congrats on your new bundle of boy! 🙂

  9. There is no “ideal” spacing. I am a mother of seven children born in 4 different decades. (1976, 1978, 1981, 1984, 1993, 1999, and 2001) My first four were 29 months, 29 months and 41 months apart respectively. They were all girls. Then it was 8 years and 8 months until my son was born and its own story. His daddy had some struggles that ended up with our marriage coming to an end while he was still a baby. When he was 5, I married again. His little sister was born when he was 6 years 3 months and I was 44. I had a boy 2 years and 6 weeks later at 46. My children all love each other. The ones closer in age relate more but they get along fine with their siblings that are spaced further apart. It changes as they get older, too. Life is fluid and changes and so do people. If you are doing the best you can (and we all have room for learning and growth) and you love them and love their other parent it will all work out. I don’t think Attachment Parenting was even a phrase until after my first 4 were born but I had strong instincts about birth, breastfeeding, co-sleeping, etc. and that is how I mothered. It worked best for me and my babies. I had to learn to stand against the critics and made mistakes (especially with the first one where I did not know enough to fight for it). Life is a journey and you won’t get it all right, but if your heart is in the right place your children will grow up with love and a good attachment that will benefit all of their relationships. My older children are having children and I see them practicing mothering the way I did with them. It brings joy to my heart.

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