One year, two years, five years, 10 years...just what is the ideal spacing between siblings?
Every mom contemplating their second child wants to know the answer, but just try looking up an exact answer online or in a magazine or book. Most of these resources, if they choose to pinpoint an age gap, promote anywhere from two to five years as the best range, but no one can say for sure just what is best when it comes to the appropriate spacing between brothers and sisters.
The answer from many experienced parents is, it all depends.
Siblings with only a couple years or less between them will be more work in the early years but give siblings a playmate. Widely spaced children will give parents a break from the energy-intensive early years, but siblings may not be as closely bonded.
Sometimes it is easy to plan the number of years between children. For others, family planning can be difficult. Everybody has a different experience, but there may be more considerations to sibling spacing than you think:
THE BOTTOM LINE IS RELATIONSHIP
All children need love, demonstrated through the development of a warm relationship with a parent and eventually between siblings. Sibling spacing, especially if closer in age, can affect sibling relationships if parents aren't prepared for the demands of caring for multiple small children. The new baby or an older sibling could feel "left out" of his parent's emotional attention, especially if the child isn't as assertive as his siblings or has a high-needs temperament.
A book that helped me to better understand the effect of sibling spacing on my family's relationships is The Five Love Languages of Children, in which author Gary Chapman writes: "...[N]one is more basic than the need for love and affection, the need to sense that he or she belongs and is wanted."
Adding another baby reduces your time with your older child, and she may act-out to communicate her need for closeness and connection. Parents can be conscious of this and take the child's cues, using empathy and understanding to reconnect. This will take time, patience, and consistency.
Also keep in mind your temperament and that of your children. For some children, a new baby can be an exciting adventure; for others, any change is difficult. The same holds true for parents, but it is how the child reacts to a new sibling and to the sibling spacing that is more influential on parents than their own adult temperament.
BIRTH ORDER MATTERS
Another book that I found helpful as I considered when to try having another baby is The Birth Order Book, in which author Kevin Leman writes: "In any family, a person's order of birth has a lifelong effect on who and what that person turns out to be."
He explains how birth goes hand-in-hand with siblings spacing in that the number of years between children, as well as their placing in the sibling line-up, has a lot to do with what sort of temperament that child develops: First-born, single, and last-born children all tend to be needier for parental attention and approval. The middle child, or the second-born in a two-child family, tends to be more laid-back and compromising to find ways to get along with the older- and younger-borns.
Because of his more passive temperament, the middle- or second-born child can be easily "forgotten" when it comes to giving attention and affection, Leman explains. He naturally compromises his need to get along. First- and last-borns, as well as singletons, become aggressive for their parents' attention if they feel they haven't received enough.
"I have counseled many middle-borns who have told me they did not feel that special growing up,” Leman continues. “'My older brother got all the glory, and my little sister got all the attention, and then there was me' is a very familiar assessment. Somehow there just doesn't seem to be a great deal of parental awareness of the middle child's need for a spot in the pecking order."
Some parents try to space their children far enough apart to be certain the middle or second-born child has several years of parental attention before a new baby comes along, to ensure that this child has been able to develop an assertiveness to ask for more attention should he need it.
Another challenging sibling-spacing scenario is when two boys or two girls are born close together. This may be a twin pair or part of a triplet or siblings born within a year or two of one another. These siblings can either become the best of friends or overly competitive with each other.
To become good friends, one of the pair of same-gendered children must become the submissive sibling. In this case, Leman suggests that parents try to develop the more passive child's assertiveness. In a competitive pairing, parents often find it is better to help each child develop their own individual talents so they don't feel the need to compete with one another to be "the best."
In Siblings Without Rivalry, coauthors Adele Faber and Elaine Mazlish point out that the amount of attention given to children is less important when compared to how they are loved. It is impossible for parents to be able to give equal parts of love and attention to each of their children. Rather than trying to love them the same, parents should strive to love each of their children uniquely and to give each child the amount of attention she needs at that moment.
Sibling spacing and birth order aside, the most influence on whether our children form close relationships with one another is how we parent.
Parents in warm relationships with their children use more non-coercive, positive discipline and less punishment-based discipline, according to a study by Southern Methodist University (USA). Their children tend to act-out less and have fewer signs of depression and anxiety.
Concludes Leman: "The way parents treat their children is as important as their birth order, spacing, sex, and physical or mental characteristics. The key question is: Was the environment provided by the parents loving, accepting, and warm?"