Mind the gap: What is the ideal age difference between children?

One of the ways in which a lot of us are different from our parents’ generation is in our approach to parenting. Planned and intentional parenting is a lot more on the minds of this generation of parents than in the past. Earlier, the equation of marriage then children was unquestioned and unexamined. Issues like how many children, at what intervals, career and couple requirements are all signs of this time, and most couples are curious about what guidelines they should follow, since the old rules don’t really apply.

A lot of research has been undertaken, especially with a view to maternal and child health. The results are pretty much unanimous that having children within a year to year and a half of each other is more stressful and has more negative health consequences for the mother and children (and by extension, the father). So a minimum gap of 1 ½ to 2 years is accepted as a norm by most experts and lay persons too.

However, there are several ‘ideal’ age difference theories floating around, and each one can back up their prescribed gap with reasons – 2 years of difference is best, because mum will be in the flow of taking care of very young children, and the career gap before getting back to work won’t be too much; 3, because then the elder is off to nursery and caregivers can get some downtime; 4, because then the older one is more independent; 5 because by then the elder one will be old enough to not be jealous… The jury is still out, but I believe that (apart from definitely keeping them 1 ½ years apart for physical health reasons) the decision of how much gap to keep between the children is a very individual one that has to take into account the parents’ unique beliefs, resources and constraints.

Whatever the gap, there are certain signs and phenomena to keep a look out for when your family increases by one member. Here are some of these:

  • Been there, done that: No, not really. Where you’ve been and what you’ve done before this is bring one child into the world. And bravo for that! But if you’re expecting the second time round to be more of the same thing, you’re in for a shock. Right from pregnancy to the nature of this second tiny person you’re getting into your family, things WILL be different. So brace yourself for that!
  • Golden memories: After a year or so, we find that the first year of our first child is bathed in this warm haze that conveniently forgets the stinky bedclothes and sleepless days and remembers the first smile and the way that the little tyke hung onto your finger. Some research even suggests that this is a protective function designed to increase propagation of the species! So though your memory may play tricks with you, remember that any change – no matter how welcome – is going to create disruption and stress
  • Less of this and more of that – comparisons of children are inevitable, because that’s how we humans make sense of life. But beware! Comparisons could make one or even both of your children feel unloved or stereotyped. They will be similar in some ways, but they will also be different, just because they are different individuals. And – this could be surprising to some of you – you as a parent will be different with the second one, too! So appreciate and celebrate these differences as well as the similarities!
  • Elder children are also still children: When the age gap is more than 2-3 years, and especially when the elder one is 5 or older, we sometimes treat them as mini-adults rather than children because they are so breathtakingly good at talking and functioning almost independently. In Indian settings especially, “you’re the elder one, you should take care of your little brother/sister” will sound extremely familiar. Take a moment, if you’re an elder sibling, to think back to how it made you feel to hear that – responsible? Or burdened? Loving or resentful? Older kids need mom and dad just as much as younger ones, just not in the same ways
  • Don’t be the policeman: Sibling rivalry and fights can be intense, as most of us can testify. And yet we’ve survived to be adults and very often best friends with those tormentors from our childhood! So extend the same space for your children to figure out how to relate to each other. If you get into the fights you’re actually harming rather than helping them. Beyond ensuring basic physical safety, especially when they’re under 5, stay out of it. Better to be their common enemy, by sending them both to their rooms or depriving them both of TV time, than to have them come whining to you every time they have a fight
  • Green-eyed monsters: No matter how old the first child is when the second comes along, no matter how much you’ve prepared him/her for the arrival of a baby sister or brother, initially there will be insecurity and jealousy. Sometimes they even go back to a ‘baby habit’ you thought they were done with – like thumb-sucking or bedwetting, to name just two – before they can return to being the ‘grown up’ ones. It’s normal and to be expected, so try not to react harshly, and try to set apart a little special one on one time for them

For those who think parenting two children will be just like parenting one child, only twice… the mathematics of kids is not addition but multiplication. So you’re trying to dress one child while ensuring the other continues to wear what he has on, and you still have the same old pair of hands! I’ve sometimes wondered what I did with all my time before becoming a mother… but whatever it was, it cannot compare to the exciting, ever-changing and exuberant richness that two bundles of joy have introduced in my life as a mother!

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About Gayatri Swaminathan

Gayatri Swaminathan is a clinical psychologist with 7 years of practical experience in the field. She has worked as a trauma counsellor, a qualitative market researcher, lecturer and private practioner. She has an M. Phil in Clinical Psychology and M.A. in Applied Psychology from Delhi University and B.A. (Psychology, Sociology, English Literature) from Bangalore University. She is trained primarily in the cognitive-behavioural approach, but also incorporates other schools of therapy and techniques as and when needed. She works with individual adults, couples, children and adolescents and their families.