How Close in Age Should Siblings Be? The Great Debate

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Is it better to have kids who are close in age or have a wider gap between them? Mother Nature often plays a role in that decision, but many parents deliberately plan their pregnancies to space their kids close or far apart for biological, financial, or emotional reasons — for example, in the hopes that two siblings close in age will have a tighter bond.

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The average age gap between siblings in America is about two and a half years. This means, for many families, that life is condensed — sure, you can get though the baby-toddler years in one shot, but chasing after a small child while pregnant or caring for a newborn takes exhaustion to a whole new level. Financially there are pros and cons, too — having kids close in age means hand-me-downs are a no-brainer, but footing the bill for two college kids at virtually the same time is expensive.

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So, what’s the ideal age gap for siblings?

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How close in age should siblings be? (Photo: Getty Images)

What the Experts Say

As far as sibling relationships go (and this may surprise some parents), children who are less than two years apart experience more conflict than those who are spaced further apart, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP). “Keep in mind, though, that sibling rivalry is greatly influenced by gender as much as anything else,” Susan Newman, PhD., a child psychologist and author of Little Things Long Remembered: Making Your Children Feel Special Every Day, tells Yahoo Parenting. For example, brothers usually butt heads more with each other than with their sisters because their interests and desires tend to overlap.

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On the other hand, when kids are farther apart in age, the older sibling often becomes the protector, almost like a secondary parent. “You will also find that the older child is more independent and can play alone or even help in caring for the younger sibling,” adds Newman. “That’s certainly a good reason to space them apart.”

What the Research Says

The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG) suggests waiting at least 12 months to conceive after the birth of a child to reduce the risk of preterm birth and low birth weight. That’s because women’s bodies need time to recover from one pregnancy and delivery in order to enter the next one in optimal health.

But there are also similar drawbacks to waiting too long — research conducted by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) found that women who waited 10 years between pregnancies experience double the risk of having a small baby and/or have a 50 percent greater risk of delivering prematurely. Plus, the longer women wait to have their second, the higher the risk of miscarriage and birth defects. And those with a history of postpartum depression also have a higher risk of developing it again the longer they wait to conceive.

However, getting pregnant again quickly after having one child has also been linked to autism. One study published in the journal Pediatrics found that second-born children conceived within 12 months of a child were three times more likely to be diagnosed with autism, although no one knows why. The farther apart pregnancies were spaced, the lower the risk.

The CDC study suggests that parents wait 18 to 23 months between pregnancies.  

What the Parents Say

“My kids are spread out and I get to enjoy different stages at the same time. The challenge is trying to find movies and activities we can enjoy as a family, but it’s not impossible.” — M. Branch.

“While it was tough to have two kids in diapers, my kids are best friends. They look out for each other in school and learn how to resolve conflicts daily. The only negative is paying for two college educations at once.” — Meghan Lynch

“I am certainly enjoying my six-year-old helping out with my newborn. I also loved all the time I had with my firstborn before welcoming the second. — Lyssa Turner Sahadevan.

“My two kids are 18 months apart. Selfishly, it was nice to get through a stage and move on.” — J. Dixon.

The Bottom Line

The right mix for one family may be entirely different for another. It’s important to take certain health risks into consideration, both for the mother and the child, and waiting at least 12 months between pregnancies seems to be the consensus among medical experts. As for the relationship between siblings, those bonds are determined by more than just age. “Whenever possible, parents should base the decision on their readiness for more children,” says Newman, “not on fantasies about how kids may grow up feeling about each other.”

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