Monday, 19 January 2009

What is the perfect age gap between children?


I have a piece in the Times, Body and Soul section, on that thorny topic, age-gaps. You can read it here.

For some reason, the piece online, unlike the published newspaper piece, doesn't include the case study.

Here is my original:

By Sarah Ebner

What is the optimum age gap between children? Will a short gap incite furious sibling rivalry, or a long gap risk your children never becoming friends? It’s one of the more frustrating parental conundrums – and one where people are apparently happy to offer opinions, but not absolutes.
“We know the general effect of age gaps, but family dynamics change, so there are no guarantees,” says Dr Richard Woolfson, child psychologist and author of Understanding Children. “However, sibling rivalry tends to be at its strongest when the age gap is around two years. It’s less intense at 18 months or younger because they don’t have a fully developed sense of identity, while after three years, it’s also lessened because the older child will have more of a sense of independence, and feel more secure in their own life.”
Sibling rivalry is certainly one of the first things parents consider when they’re deciding whether to have a second or third baby. But there are also many other issues. Careers, finances and even accommodation all have their parts to play, and so, of course, does simple biology. Many women may hope for a particular age gap between their children, but find that they can’t make that happen. Others become pregnant more easily than they expected.
“I thought it would be nice to have the children growing up together, but never thought I would get pregnant so quickly a second time,” says Janine Neye, who has a 13 month gap between Jake, 13, and Maddi, 12. “It was tough physically, but in some ways that small gap was easier – it got the nappies out of the way all at once. At the same time, it was a bit like having twins but scarier. I remember Jake running in one direction and Maddi lying in his way dangerously in the other.”
But are there any clues to what is the “right” gap? According to the Office of National Statistics, the median interval between births (for married women in England and Wales) is 35 months, a sensible interval if you’re trying to minimise sibling rivalry. This almost three-year gap could also be wise when it comes to maternal health - research by the Catalyst Consortium, which covers family planning and reproduction, suggests that it is near to optimum for health reasons. Much of their data was based on the developing world, which has much higher rates of infant and maternal mortality, but experts here agree that it makes sense to let the body recover from one gruelling pregnancy and childbirth before moving onto another one.
A further study from the Centre of Population Studies at the School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine in London, supports this. It discovered that women who wait less than 18 months between having children are more likely to die young than those who have a bigger gap. By the age of 50, the death rate for those women in their study was 20 percent higher than those with a larger sibling gap.
Shelley Lief and her husband Kevin have a seemingly perfect gap between their two sons, Alex, who’s nearly 6 and Jacob, who’s coming up to 3. Another baby is due in February.
“We didn’t think we could cope!” says Lief, 37, as she explains why they went for that interval between the boys. “We didn’t sit down and plan a three year gap, and there was definite peer pressure to go for two or two and a half years, but I didn’t want a toddler and a baby. I wanted an older child who was a bit more independent, but not so much older that he wouldn’t be friends with his new sibling. I knew I didn’t want a tiny gap; that’s very hard on the parents.
“The two boys are very close and play together all the time,” she adds. “I don’t know if it’s an optimum gap, but it works for us.”
Professor Judy Dunn, a developmental psychologist and expert in child development, agrees that this three year interval may be a good one.
“It’s true that there are big differences in how a first born reacts to the arrival and upheaval of a new baby, depending on how old they are,” she says. “A two year old will show upset in a very different way to a five year old, and if a child can talk, lots of things are different. You can amuse and distract a verbally precocious three year old when you’re with a young baby. That’s harder with an 18 month old.
“By three, most first-born children are amenable to parental pressure not to beat up the baby. But how well siblings get along with each other is very dependent on the older child’s temperament.”
Lief also believes that gender made a positive difference.
“I knew nothing about boys before,” she says. “But they have got so much in common, from superheroes to play fighting. I’m sure it makes them closer.”
Gender may well play a part, but it’s debatable whether this is good or bad. Many women who get along just perfectly with their little sisters as babies (all that sharing of pink tutus) find that this sharing turns into competitiveness as they grow up and are compared more easily than siblings of opposite sexes. The same goes for those Spider-Man playing brothers.
“Everyone’s experience is different” says Dr Woolfson. “The kids may get along fine when they are 4 and 2 or 8 and 6, but the gap can seem vast when they reach 13 and 11, whatever their gender. Social interests may not start to level out until they are much older.”
“If you’re interested in a child’s wellbeing, then they can do very well with a five or six year gap, or a year between them,” adds Professor Dunn. “If you’re worried about the quality of the relationship between your children, you’re right, it will be very different depending on whether the gap is small or big, but there’s no simple equation.”
Janine Neye agrees with that. She claims that her children’s age gaps are far from optimum, but that it works in practice.
“We’ve got the worst case scenario,” says Neye, 43. “We’ve got too small a gap at one end – just 13 months – and too big a gap at the other!”
Neye was horrified when she first found out that she was pregnant for the third time. Her two children, Jake and Maddi were 9 and 8, and she thought her new baby days were over.
“It nearly finished us off,” says Neye, who’s now 43. “The older two were devastated because it signified such a change in our lives, and obviously we weren’t expecting it. It’s definitely affected the family dynamic.”
But while Neye is a real life example of a small and large age gap, she can see the benefits of both. This was also true of her own upbringing - she gets on especially well with her youngest sister (a 12 year age gap).
“It has been nice having a large gap and it’s lovely having a small one around - Spike’s a great asset. But it has changed our lives on a complicated level. When we went on holiday to Cornwall, the older two surfed with their dad and I had to stay with Spike. These days I don’t get to do as many things with the older two, and we aren’t quite as complete.”
For some people, a small age gap makes perfect sense: like Janine Neye (with numbers one and two!) they want two children who will grow up together, have much in common and be close. For others, it makes no sense at all. Why, they wonder, would you want to go back to sleepless nights and breastfeeding just when you’ve finished them? Doesn’t it make sense to spend time with the first child, and not share him or her with a tiny, screaming number two? Even Neye feels her first son missed out on her attention. “He was tiny when I got pregnant again,” she says.
There’s also the question of intellectual development, as it’s suggested that this is helped by a larger gap. Language development in particular improves when a child spends more time with adults rather than similarly aged siblings. However, once again, there are many other factors at play when it comes to intelligence.
“Every age gap brings strengths and weaknesses,” says Dr Woolfson. “I would strongly discourage any parents from choosing an age gap on the basis of reducing tension between children or how intelligent they want their child to be.”
And whatever the age gap, parents need to prepare children carefully for any new arrivals, or face dire consequences. How siblings get on may owe more to personality than age, but parents can make a real difference.
“If it’s not resolved in childhood, then the impact of age gaps will continue into adulthood,” warns Dr Woolfson. “Parents need to be aware of this and make every effort to work at it with the children, encourage them to get on and make each of them feel special.”

1 comment:

Babe_Chilla said...

I have sent the link to your Times piece out COUNTLESS times and now, it's not working. Any idea how else I can access that piece?

I can reached via my website at