Is There an "Ideal" Age Gap Between Kids?

Chelsea Day

When I told my OBGYN that I was pregnant with my second just 18 months after the first, he audibly winced. “Psychologists and other experts typically recommend a three-year age gap between kids,” he explained when I looked at him questioningly.

To be fair, he quickly traced his steps back, saying that he’d seen it work out perfectly well with all sorts of age gaps – but he did acknowledge that the general literature and sentiment on the subject, based on numerous studies, always tends to point to three years as being the absolute ideal.

I soon found that this concept of three years being the ideal spacing was well-known in the baby-having world. Friends and relatives would often bring up concerns about my children's well-being (despite the fact that it was OBVIOUSLY a little late to address timing). What gives with all the unwarranted opinions? I decided to do a little digging.

All About Age Gaps Between Kids

It turns out, studies are inconclusive on the “best” interval between children. While three to four years IS generally viewed as enough time for the older child to understand the toll of pregnancy and let mom have some much-needed downtime, a Canadian study has shown that aggression peaks in children at age three, leading some to the conclusion that younger siblings may be subject to increased sibling abuse with a three-year gap. Much longer than that, and they have trouble bonding.

Maternal health and age also play a big role in child spacing. Older moms or parents with fertility concerns are often driven to have children back-to-back lest they miss their chance altogether, while working moms may not have the energy level to juggle multiple children and a job at once. Concern over the health of the second child is also an issue: a California study has shown that when children are spaced closer than one year apart, their odds of being diagnosed with autism are much higher, possibly due to decreased nutrient levels in the mother's body. This is a very valid concern, but one that can be addressed with planning and proper supplementation.

The biggest concerns, at the end of the day, are psychological. What dynamic do you want for your family? Are you the sort of person who tends to be more singular in focus and has trouble splitting your attention? When a child joins the family, the parents naturally want to spend time with their new son or daughter. This is one of the many reasons why it can be difficult to raise children at different ages.

Benefits of having kids closer together include:

  • No need to store baby stuff long-term – just pass it from one kid to the next!
  • Built-in playmates who are bound to be interested in at least some of the same things
  • Childcare costs may be decreased as you can hire one person to watch both children, instead of having needing to hire nannies to care for younger children while sending older children to daycare or afterschool care
  • They get out of the house sooner so that you can enjoy some alone time with yourself and/or with your partner
  • Less chance of “spoiling” your children, since your resources will naturally be divided between multiple kids

Drawbacks of having kids closer together include:

  • Less individual time with each child, since their developmental phases and needs tend to overlap
  • Having kids closer together inevitably takes away time from parents’ careers in rapid succession. It can be hard to make up the raises, career advancements, and connections that happen for younger parents in the workforce, which may leave parents of born kids closer together at a financial disadvantage
  • Parents may have a harder time bonding with each other when close-together kids are demanding their time and attention

Children born with a large age gap in between are subject to less competition and jealousy, but parents have a harder time coming up with engaging family outings and fostering sibling bonds. My sister and I are a noticeable six years apart and had very little in common growing up–although we've enjoyed exploring our relationship as adults.

Not only can an age gap create a different sort of dynamic between the kids, it can also create a different dynamic for the parents. The older child is more mature. He or she is better able to care for themselves and is more independent. This creates a huge difference in the relationship between parents and their children.

Benefits of having kids further apart include:

  • People are more likely to throw you a subsequent baby shower, so each kid will have the latest-and-greatest stuff
  • Younger kids will have a built-in mentor, while older kids will be able to develop a healthy sense of confidence in their leadership skills
  • Moms and dads will have a built-in helper
  • Potentially less financial strain during the college years, as kids won’t be attending all at once
  • The eventual “empty nest” shock won’t be as abrupt
  • You may have an easier time connecting with your kids individually since you’ll probably be less overwhelmed and they’re less likely to be “lumped into” similar interests.

Drawbacks of having kids further apart include:

  • Difficulty making sure relationships are “equal,” as the baby tends to command the most attention
  • Concerns that parents who have kids later or further apart may not be in their best physical and mental health later down the line to serve their younger kids' needs as well as the older kids
  • Parenting styles tend to change as parents mature, which may leave siblings feeling that they’ve been treated unfairly

Child Age Gap is the same as Parent-to-Child Age Gap

When considering how far apart to have children, remember that as a parent, your age gap between your kids will also increase as you increase their age gap between each other. By spacing kids out, you may be having children in completely different phases of life – which has its own set of pros and cons and ramifications. People often wonder, "how old should we be when we have children?" The truth is, it's not a formula. It's a matter of what feels right for your family. And there are many factors to consider.

For my family, the 18-month age gap works out well – for my kids and for myself, as I’m the type who likes to jump into things both feet first. It works with my personality. My kiddos are the best of friends, with the toddler getting excited over all of the baby's “firsts” and helping him along through life. I'll admit I'm running on fumes some days, but it works for us and I think that every mom and dad should find whatever age gap is “ideal” for them.

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Helping parents live simple and satisfying lives. Our homeschooling family loves to learn, and in our spare time (hah!) we RV travel and flip houses.

Boise, ID

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