the second time around

Should you have baby No. 2 sooner or later?

"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.

“All of a sudden her bedtime rituals were interrupted, and she was put off her routine.” While Peterson was disappointed by the rocky start, she says her girls, now ages 51¼2 and 2, have a good relationship. “The 2-year-old worships her sister and wants to do everything she does, and the older one likes that,” she says.

Too close for comfort?

What is it like to parent two children under the age of 3? For many families, in a word: chaotic. “I’m so frazzled by the end of the day,” says Tammy Bowman of Tampa, Fla., who says the hardest thing has been trying to constantly entertain 2-year-old Ariana and 9-week-old Athena. “One-on-one time is at a minimum, so I try multi-tasking: putting Athena in the baby carrier so I can cook dinner while feeding Ari in her highchair. It’s one big merry-go-round until I get Ari to bed.”

Just being pregnant when you have a toddler at home is more challenging, too. Valerie Gallagher of Cary, N.C., whose children are 15 months apart, recalls the difficulty of being pregnant with her daughter, Katherine, while caring for her son, Aidan. “The bigger I got at the end, and the more tired, the more work Brian, my husband, had to do. Aidan was still needy, and it was hard for me to pick him up—I just didn’t have the energy.”

In the end, Gallagher feels that because her children are so close in age, they’re more likely to play together and have a good relationship. Also, she says, “Aidan’s not really old enough to have been jealous, and he’ll never remember a time when it was just him and us.”

Ultimately, choosing when to have another child is a decision that only you and your partner can make. One thing is certain, though: Whenever that new little one arrives, he or she is sure to bring chaos, joy and, yes, plenty of sleepless nights back into your lives.

[Making the second-child decision]

For some couples, the decision isn’t just about when to have a second child but if. Here are some considerations to discuss with your partner before taking the plunge into diapers again.

>>Envision your ideal family. What kind of home atmosphere do you want? Calm and serene? Busy and bustling? Consider how a second child fits into that picture.

>>Consider your resources. There’s no question that having another child will alter your family dynamics and stress level. A couple needs strategies for handling these issues before having a second baby, says Barry G. Ginsberg, Ph.D., director of the Center of Relationship Enhancement in Doylestown, Pa. Ask yourselves: Do you have the physical and emotional energy necessary to care for two children?

>>Take stock of your first child’s needs. Assuming you decide to have a second child, you need to do some advance planning. “You have to ask yourselves, ‘How do we meet the needs of the older child without taking away from the younger one?’” Ginsberg says. “It requires the time, effort and cooperation of both parents.” Talk about how you understand your child—his personality, his coping mechanisms—and what resources are available. Is he old enough to be involved in a play group? Is there extended family nearby who could spend one-on-one time with him when a new baby arrives? Once the baby is born, make sure both parents schedule a weekly one-on-one outing with the older child. Doing so will ease the stress of the transition for all of you.