Timing of a new arrival is crucial for siblings and parents

MOVE over Prince George, Aoife Belle, Patrick and Sadie. There’s another on the way.

Timing of a new arrival is crucial for siblings and parents

It seems only months since Her Royal Highness Kate Middleton, Saturdays star Una Healy, presenter Claire Byrne and author/actress Amy Huberman made headlines with news of their first arrivals.

Now all four are expecting second babies. Prince George and Aoife Belle are set to become, respectively, a big brother and big sister next year, while Patrick and Sadie steal the march on them with younger siblings expected this year.

Una Healy’s firstborn will be about three when her new sibling comes along, Claire’s will be just 11 months, Amy’s Sadie will be 21 months, with a similar age gap on the cards between Prince George and the new royal baby. So what’s the ideal gap between babies?

Una Healy

There’s no easy answer, according to consultant obstetrician and gynaecologist Dr Mary McCaffrey, who says factors at play include the mum’s age and whether she previously had a complicated labour and delivery. “If she had a straightforward delivery, is nutritionally back to normal after breastfeeding, has got her iron stores back to normal, is on a healthy diet and taking folic acid, her body is fit for pregnancy two to three months after childbirth.”

But— warns McCaffrey— if she has had a previous Caesarean section, the scar on her uterus needs to heal so as to avoid rupture caused by stretching during a subsequent pregnancy. “It’d be good if she could wait a year before becoming pregnant again.”

Similarly, if a woman developed diabetes or high blood pressure during a previous pregnancy, she needs to be reviewed six weeks post-natally, have a management plan put in place and not consider getting pregnant until this is well underway. McCaffrey recommends women do post-pregnancy Pilates to strengthen pelvic floor muscles and that women who’ve had an instrumental (forceps) delivery to wait up to six months before getting pregnant again.

However, if a woman’s window of fertility is narrowing, she may have little choice but to have back-to-back babies — the Irish twins of former generations.

“Waiting may be a luxury some women can’t afford. I’ve had women who’ve had C-sections at 40 — I can’t ask a woman like that to wait a year or two. She might fail to get pregnant a second time,” says McCaffrey.

When it comes to practical aspects of parenting and the best sibling gap, it seems Una Healy has got it spot-on — experts suggest three years is the ideal gap. But some mums — and this may well apply to Amy and Kate, assuming their pregnancies are planned, want to consolidate the exhausting, sleep-deprived young baby years and get it all over with early.

“You’re in the throes of the sleepless nights anyway, the pureed food, the nappy rash. Some would prefer to get it all over with,” says Laura Haugh, mum-in-residence for MummyPages.ie.

But, says Haugh, having your babies close together can be difficult from a childcare and career perspective. “You have to pay the full whack of crèche fees and that’s expensive. And with a shorter gap it’s harder to maintain your level of career, whereas if you leave a year or 18 month gap you’re able — in between pregnancies — to re-establish yourself in your work environment.”

Admittedly, such issues aren’t likely to bother Kate Middleton much, or other mums with celebrity lifestyle advantages.

The likely downside for Kate and Amy Huberman is that their firstborns — aged around 21 months when junior arrives, will be going through a lot of developmental changes in terms of mobility and language development. “With a gap of less than two years, you’re going to have a baby requiring attention during the night so you’ll be sleep-deprived. You’ll have a toddler crawling, learning to walk, into everything and needing a lot of attention,” says Haugh.

Tantrums are in full sway between 18 months and two and a half years. It’s probably best if the new baby arrives when you’re coming out the other side of the tantrum stage with the older one, suggests Haugh.

“As a mum, it’s a really hard decision to make — do you tend to the crying baby who has colic? Or do you tend to the 18-month-old who’s having a tantrum because he doesn’t like what you gave him for dinner?”

But with a gap of three years, such as Una Healy’s daughter will enjoy with her sibling, a mum will be better able to communicate the arrival of the baby, saying that it doesn’t change her feelings for her older child — and the little one will understand more. “The three-year-old is more confident and secure in themselves than a younger one,” says Haugh.

From the point of view of the older child, two is a difficult age to find oneself having to make room for a noisy, demanding young sibling. Joanna Fortune, clinical psychotherapist and director of Solamh Parent-Child Relationship Clinic, says at age two children are at their most egocentric.

“They become frustrated very easily. They struggle when they can’t control their environment. They’re more likely to have a negative view of themselves and their parents when their closest sibling is two years [younger]. They’re simply not ready yet to share their parents. They experience resentment and jealousy at a very intense level.”

Child therapist Helen Sholdice agrees. “Young George will have to suck it up. He has to share his mother very soon with another. It’s a very big step up for a young boy. Even with an adoring nanny, he will likely find it difficult.”

Sholdice emphasises that every family is unique and every child is unique but in general terms she believes a three-year gap is ideal because the older child is well established. “He has had a longer period of time to develop a satisfactory relationship with his mother,” she says.

While there will still be sibling jealousy — “it’s part and parcel of family life,” says Sholdice — it’s likely to be short-lived. “The three-year-old is already walking and talking where the baby isn’t doing any of this. It’s pretty obvious [to the three-year-old] that this is a small helpless baby, whereas they’re older, not in nappies and more capable.”

This, says Sholdice, can lead to a dynamic where the older child becomes “a lovely little teacher”, showing the younger one all kinds of things from games to language.

Dr Christian Ryan, psychology manager with Cope Foundation, says it’s difficult to assess the impact of a particular age gap between siblings.

“It’s very complex,” he says, adding that gender and parental attitude to each child will influence the dynamic between the two children. So, he says, will birth order.

“You can’t compare the experience of a two-year gap between a first and second born and between a second born and third born. What we do see is that the two closest in terms of birth order seem to have most sibling rivalry.”

Expert tips: sibling rivalry

Observe your children’s relationships with each other rather than always jumping in to fix things.

Encourage children to resolve it themselves. Let them know you’re confident they can play well together’.

Help them problem-solve – ‘how do you think we can fix this?’

If discipline’s necessary give equal consequences – they learn that if they fight, both are penalised, nobody wins.

Treat children fairly. Explain that there are different rules at different ages and why.

Do not bend rules for younger children.

Child therapist Helen Sholdice advises using loving, accepting phrases with a young child who’s having difficulty welcoming a new baby – ‘you find it hard to share me with baby’, ‘there’s plenty of love to go around’.

Parents should look at their own relationships with siblings – this could help them empathise with their children’s feelings.

Ensure each gets one-to-one attention with you.

Realise that sibling rivalry is not necessarily bad. “They might have less rivalry, but also less closeness,” comments Dr Christian Ryan, psychology manager with Cope Foundation.

Stay calm – just because your children don’t get along now doesn’t mean it’ll always be like this.

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