How Big Age Gaps Between Kids Change Your Parenting

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Maybe you’re not ready to expand your family right now, but you’re also not sure if a big age gap between kids is best for your family. Maybe your preference is to wait longer, but you feel pressure from friends and family to stick to a smaller, more traditional age gap. Or maybe your ability to have another child has been delayed by illness, financial strain, or fertility challenges.

Whatever the case, you are wondering if a big age gap is right for you. How is it going to affect your kids, your marriage, your lifestyle—and most importantly, your ability to be the best parent you can be to your children?

These are concerns many of us have as we make decisions about how to space our children.

Every family is different, and what works for you may not work for your friend, neighbor, or family member.

Still, there are some universal truths to keep mind about what it’s like to parent kids with big age gaps—and you might be surprised by just how fantastic a choice it can be for many families.

How Common Are Big Age Gaps?

There is no “best” when it comes to age gaps between children. Yet when most of us think of the “ideal” or most common age gap between kids, we generally think of a two to three year gap. This makes sense, as it matches the national statistics concerning age gap trends among American families.

According to data from the National Vital Statistics System at the CDC, the average child spacing interval in America is between two and two-and-a-half years.

Of course, that’s an average, and there is a lot of variation among different age groups, ethnicities, and education levels.

Here are some key points from the data:

  • Shorter intervals between pregnancies are most common in older mothers (over the age of 35) and younger moms (under the age of 25).
  • Shorter intervals between children decreases among mothers with higher education degrees.
  • One third of all couples conceive about 18 months after the birth of their previous child, making the median age interval between children 24-29 months.
  • Although shorter age gaps are more common than larger age gaps, 5% of births occur with age intervals as large at 10 years.

So yes, larger age gaps are not as common as smaller ones. But that doesn’t mean they are any less valid or ideal. Although you are somewhat less likely to meet a family with a 4 or 5 year gap—much less an 8 or 9 year gap—there are plenty of these families out there. And they are equally likely to be happy and thriving.

The Benefits of Big Age Gaps

Although some parents have regrets about spacing their children widely, for the most part, parents who do so report lots of positives. Let’s look at some of the wonderful benefits of big age gaps between siblings.

You Can Give Each Child Individual Attention

When you space your kids close together, it can feel nearly impossible to give each child individual attention. There is always someone who needs a nap, a diaper change, a feeding or snack, and near-constant adult supervision.

When your children are spaced more widely, most of those concerns are not there. You can spend a few solid hours with your younger child while your older child plays alone or is in school. You can devote time and attention to your older child while your younger child naps or is down for the night.

You Get a Breather Between Kids

Let’s face it, raising young children is taxing. Between the sleep deprivation, feeding, nap times, and endless diapers, parenting little ones is intense and all-encompassing. And did we mention utterly exhausting?

Spacing your children a little wider means that you might get a few years of sleep and peace before doing it all again. You can start your parenting journey with your new baby refreshed and energized—not to mention, older and wiser.

Less Sibling Rivalry

When siblings are spaced a little farther apart, there is less chance they will feel competitive with each other. After all, they are more likely to be in different schools, have different sets of friends, and be focused on different developmental stages and goals.

Obviously, this isn’t always the case. Even widely spaced siblings fight and feel at odds with one another at times. However, they are usually less likely to be competing for parental attention and since at least one of the children is on the older side, it's usually easier to resolve their disputes.

Built-In Babysitters

One of the best perks of parenting kids with big age gaps is that there will come a point where your older child can supervise and even babysit your younger child. Full-fledged babysitting—where you are able to leave your older child at home alone with your younger child—won’t likely happen until your older child is a teen.

But even before that, there will be many scenarios where you will be able to leave your older child in charge of the little one while you take care of this and that. Your older child can play with your younger child while you straighten up, prepare meals, or make a quick phone call.

There is simply nothing better than being able to pee alone when you have littles ones in your care. Your big kid can help with that too, and it will be glorious.

Big Kids Learn Responsibility; Little Kids Learn Everything Under the Sun

Having your big kid participate in things like childcare teaches them leadership and responsibility. They will be one of your little kid’s most important role models, and there will be nothing more incredible than watching your big kid teach your little one everything they know. Your little kid will keep them humble, though, with their honesty and endless questions.

Your little kid will learn almost everything they know from their older sibling, which will mean they’ll be smart as a whip…and maybe a little bit too wise beyond their years. Your little kid will be more likely to tag along to big kid activities, which will mean they will have to learn to be flexible and adaptable.

Challenges of Big Age Gaps

Spacing your kids more widely apart is not without challenges. Being honest about these challenges is important. These concerns don’t mean that big age gaps are not worth it for many parents, but they are worth considering as you make your decision.

You Feel like You Are Never Done with the Baby Years

While large age gaps means you get a break between babies, you also never feel like all the baby stuff is truly behind you. This can be difficult as you plan a return to work or even a family vacation. You may also simply be looking forward to being a more well-rested, relaxed parent of more self-sufficient kiddos.

It Can Be Difficult to Find Activities to Suit All Ages

One of the most challenging aspects of having a big age gap between kids is that it can feel nearly impossible find an activity that interests both kids. Your little one might want to spend every second outside playing, while your older one might want nothing to do with a playground anymore. Family vacations can be hard too for similar reasons. Even planning a family game night can be painful when your kids have such totally different interests and abilities.

Delaying Childbearing Can Make Pregnancy Challenging

If you an older parent, deciding how much of an age gap you want between your kids depends somewhat on your ability to get pregnant and sustain your pregnancy. If spacing your kids widely means you will be having your next child at age 35 or older, you need to be aware of the risks in terms of ease of conception, pregnancy complications, miscarriage and birth defects.

Every woman is different, so speak to your healthcare provider if you have any questions about the timing of your future pregnancies and births.

Coordinating Entirely Different Schedules Can Be Hard

Besides coordinating activities for children with very different interests, coordinating the everyday schedules of younger and older kids can be tricky. Your younger child might need a nap at exactly the same time that your older child needs to be driven to soccer practice.

Your kids may be at completely different schools with different start and end times, and even different vacation schedules. Your older child may have the stamina to stay out late while your younger one needs to be in bed by 7pm.

Your Family May Not Look “Normal” to Others

One of the most difficult aspects of making the decision to have a big age gap between your kids is the judgment you may receive from others. You may feel confident that the choice is the right one for you, but other people in your life may believe that large age gaps are less “normal” and that somehow you or your kids will be detrimentally affected by such a choice.

There is no evidence that large age gaps are bad for kids or parents, so you can put that one to rest. As for whether your choice is normal or acceptable to others, remember that this is your family and your choice. And when it comes down to it, whether it works for you is what matters most here.

Tips for Managing Big Age Gaps

While it’s true that we can’t overlook the challenges big age gaps have for parents and their kids, most parents find creative ways to work around these. They usually find that their families thrive because of, not despite, the challenges they face.

Here are some tips:

Have Realistic Expectations

If you go in expecting your kids to have the same interests or want to participate in similar activities, you will be frustrated and disappointed. Understanding that these are some of the hardships you’ll face means you can start out with an open mind and a plan to make it work.

Be Flexible

One of the greatest lessons you’ll learn from parenting big age gap siblings is that you must be flexible—and this is something your kids will inevitably learn as well. It’s going to be nearly impossible to coordinate plans at times, and you’re often going to feel that one of your kids gets the short end of the stick. But understanding that this is OK, and just rolling with the punches, is going to help you relax into the experience a little more.

Plan Activities That Work for All Ages

You’d be surprised by how many activities work for siblings with big age gaps. Most museums, science centers, and even amusement parks have activities for both older and younger kids. More neutral places like beaches and some parks also have activities that suit kids of all ages.

Separate Activities and One-on-One Dates

At the same time, there are going to be frequent occasions where it will make most sense to plan entirely separate activities for your children. Sure, sometimes one child will have to tag along and just make due. But if you are able, you can plan some one-on-one time with each of your children as you take them to their favorite activities—and these experiences can be rewarding and enriching for you both.

A Word from Verywell

If you are learning toward a big age gap, but feel concerned that it will somehow be a bad choice or have a negative impact on your family, take heart in the fact that many families out there are extremely happy with the choice. The truth is that there are pros and cons however you do it, and one way of doing things in terms of age gaps is not better than the other.

Most of us base our decision on a combination of life circumstances, financial considerations, our own ages and plans, what we think is best for our children, as well as what our gut tells us about what to do. When it comes down to it, choosing to have your kids spaced widely apart is a very personal decision, and no one can make it for you except yourself and your partner. 

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  • Short interpregnancy intervals in 2014: differences by maternal demographic characteristics. Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) website. Updated April 2016.