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"The whole idea is to give the first child a sense of security. You want him securely attached to his parents so he doesn't feel unduly threatened by another child." Daniel Blake, Ph.D.
It happens before you know it. First you’re in the throes of life with a newborn, alternately marveling at your new little one and wondering how an adult can possibly operate on so little sleep. Before long, you’re starting to think about baby No. 2.
For many parents, deciding when to have another child is a major concern. Should you space your children’s births close together in the hopes that your kids will be good friends or wait until your first child is older? The answer largely depends on your family’s resources—emotional, financial and physical—but child-development experts can offer guidance.
The waiting game
Parenting experts and psychologists generally recommend spacing children about three years apart in order to give the first child a more secure emotional footing. That’s because at around age 2, a child faces a stressful time filled with struggles over feelings of insecurity. Tantrums and frustration generally are on the rise at this stage, and adding a sibling to this turbulent mix can contribute to a child’s feelings of abandonment or rejection. By age 3, however, most children have begun to develop independence and “object constancy”—they know that their parents love them and that they will, for example, be there for them once they’re done bathing the baby.
“The whole idea is to give the first child a sense of security,” says Daniel Blake, Ph.D., a family psychologist in Huntington Woods, Mich. “You want him securely attached to his parents so that his confidence can develop and so he doesn’t feel unduly threatened by the presence of another child. It’s also thought to be better for the second child to have the mother’s full attention while he’s an infant.”
Waiting until your first child is 3 or older also can be helpful for parents. Among the positives: You’re less likely to be dealing with diapers and feedings for two children. Plus, with an older child in preschool or kindergarten, you can focus attention on your new baby at that critical early stage. Spacing your children farther apart also allows you to recharge yourself emotionally before shifting into all-consuming baby mode again.
With a few years of parenting under your belt, you’re also likely to be more relaxed and self-assured the second time around. “When the second child comes along, you’re more secure, you don’t get rattled as easily, and you don’t make the same mistakes,” says Barry G. Ginsberg, Ph.D., director of the Center of Relationship Enhancement in Doylestown, Pa., and author of 50 Wonderful Ways to Be a Single-Parent Family (New Harbinger Publications, 2002).
But there are issues with waiting, too. That’s what Kim Hunt of Rowlett, Texas, discovered when her second child, Alexa, was born; Hunt’s older daughter, Kailey, was 5. “I’d forgotten how exhausting a newborn is,” she says. “Kailey was so independent and easy to care for, and then all of a sudden we were back to having a newborn. It was a hard adjustment.”
In addition, two children who are at different developmental stages may not be interested in playing together. And an older first child, who is used to being the center of her parents’ world, may more actively resent a baby’s intrusion into her life. Anita Peterson of Rutherford, N.J., says it took some time for her older daughter, Marden, then 31¼2, even to acknowledge her newborn sister, Hartley. “Marden had had me to herself for more than three years, and Hartley was taking attention away from her,” Peterson says.