Sibling Spacing: One Year Apart, Too Close or Just Right?

By Rita Brhel, managing editor and attachment parenting resource leader (API)

**Originally published in the Spring 2008 New Baby issue of The Journal of API

Rachel and her doll
Rachel and her doll

I love babies, especially the newborns. I love breastfeeding, babywearing, co-sleeping, the whole shebang. When other mothers can hardly stand to get through those first couple months of irregular schedules and sleep deprivation, of crazy diaper explosions and unpredictable spit-up sessions, I am soaking it all in – the comfort of knowing that I am all my little one needs, at least for a little while. For all the challenges my oldest daughter, Rachel, threw my way during her first year of life, the joys and amazement of becoming a parent far outweighed the negatives.

When Rachel turned eight months old, I turned to my husband Mike and said that I thought it’d be fun to have a baby every year. The next month, we found out I was pregnant. It wasn’t planned, but it was wonderful news. There was a problem, however, in that Rachel was far too young to comprehend what it meant to have a new baby brother or sister. Throughout the pregnancy, I tried to introduce the concept of a “baby” to her. I pointed out babies in books and on the TV. I wrapped up one of her stuffed animals in a diaper and blanket. We visited a friend with a newborn baby.

Reality Sets In

In my ninth month of pregnancy, I began to worry about how bringing home a new baby would affect my 16-month-old daughter. How would Rachel handle living with Grandma in an unfamiliar house while I was in the hospital? How would she deal with me being unable to lift her and hold her for eight weeks after a medically necessary cesarean section? How would she cope with not being the sole center of my universe?

What Would Make a C-section Medically Necessary?

Rita struggled to vaginally deliver Rachel, a three and one-half pound premature baby. Rita later learned she has a narrow pelvis, meaning the bones are deformed so that birth canal is very small. She cannot physically deliver a baby larger than four pounds on her own. Emily was taken by Caesarean section at full-term, weighing six and one-half pounds.

I knew Rachel’s world would be turned upside-down, so I tried to give her extra love in the last few days before her sister Emily was born. I hoped the emotional bond between Rachel and me would survive the inevitable interruption about to take place.

The Hardest Part

My time spent in the hospital, plus the first week home, was the worst part of the experience. Rachel stayed with my mom, as I was having a difficult time recovering from my surgery. The first time Rachel saw me afterwards, she refused to give me a hug. She had felt abandoned, I’m sure, and she certainly let me know. She didn’t “warm up” to me for an hour. I cried, certain that Rachel had forgotten I was her mommy. Finally, she went to get a book and brought it to me to read, and I knew we’d be OK.

Not being able to take care of my child was a terrible feeling, so for the next three weeks, Rachel stayed home with me while my mom came over everyday to help take care of her. The fifth week after coming home, my mom improvised ways for me to get around the doctor’s no-lifting orders so I could take care of Rachel by myself. We taught Rachel to lay still on the floor so I could change her diaper, and to use a chair to climb in and out of her crib and high chair. The following week, I was on my own with the two of them, but it took another month until I healed enough to be comfortable in my role as a mother of two babies.

AP with Two Babies

It has been a challenge to practice Attachment Parenting effectively with Rachel and Emily being so close together in age. Emily requires constant attention. But Rachel isn’t much older than Emily and she needs almost as much attention. A few weeks after coming home from the hospital, Rachel indicated that she wanted to sit on my lap. Before Emily’s birth, Rachel was more interested in playing with her toys than in snuggling with her mommy. This time, Rachel sat with me for about 45 minutes. She didn’t babble, hand me a book, turn around to play with the buttons on my shirt. She just sat with me, pulling my arms up around her and enjoying something that she hadn’t been able to do for a long time. With a newborn at home, it can be difficult to remember that Rachel isn’t much older than Emily – that she is still a baby herself.

At one point in my pregnancy, I met a nurse who had three babies all under three years old. She said the first six months were really tough, but after this, it got really fun having the kids about the same age. They played really well together and became the best of friends. I hope this happens for Rachel and Emily. I continually work to give both Rachel and Emily as much attention as possible, while not creating jealousy between the two. Both Emily, at 5 months old, and Rachel, at 21 months, seek as much attention and love and bonding time with me as possible. And both prefer that attention just to themselves.

I try to give each child their own special time with me alone. I set aside a couple hours in the morning, when Emily is sleeping, to do whatever Rachel wants, whether it’s playing with her toys, holding her up to the window to look outside at the squirrels, or reading the same book 13 times in a row. And in the afternoon when Rachel is taking her nap, I get down on the floor with Emily to let her kick her legs and watch me make goofy expressions on my face, hold her up to the bathroom mirror so she can smile and laugh at herself, or just enjoy a good, long uninterrupted breastfeeding session.

Most of the time, though, Rachel and Emily have to share my attention. So, I strive to stay fair and to teach the two of them to treat each other with love and respect. If I give one a kiss, I walk across the room to give the other a kiss. If I’m able to put Emily down for a moment, I give Rachel a few minutes of lap time. I let Rachel “help” as much as possible, such as getting me a diaper during Emily’s changing time or holding the soap dispenser during Emily’s bath time. I also gave Rachel a bottle, burp rag, diaper, and swaddling blanket to help her take care of her new doll. It didn’t take long before Rachel was trying to breastfeed not just the doll but her teddy bear and other stuffed animals.

Competition for Attention

Still, there are times everyday that are full of struggles. It is impossible for me to help both children feel their needs are being met when Emily decides she wants to eat as I’m trying to get Rachel down for a nap, or when Rachel desperately needs a bath after experimenting with her diaper but Emily is lonely and wants to be held. Meal times get hectic when Emily wants to breastfeed, Rachel needs a refill of milk, and the stove timer is going off, all at the same time. And it can be difficult when Emily is needing more mommy time one day and, in her frustration, Rachel starts whining or acting out in an attempt to get more of my attention.

Reliance on Parenting Partner

But then at 4 P.M. every day, salvation walks through the door. Mike, my husband, has been the best help this busy mom could ask for. He is amazing with the kids. He gladly takes up the Rachel shift, feeding her and changing her diapers and giving her baths, and giving her the one-on-one attention she’s been craving all day. And when he’s looking for a break, Mike takes Emily from me, ready to change her diapers and snuggle with her, while I’m down on the floor stacking blocks with Rachel and teaching her how to nicely pet the cat. After Rachel goes to bed, Mike gives Emily back and, many times, will wash the rest of the dishes or vacuum or do another household chore that I hadn’t gotten to by the time he came home from the factory.

It is this kind of support that keeps me in balance – the API principle that is the hardest for me to maintain. I have to remember to take time for myself, so that I can keep my energy tank full. And I have to remember that it is OK not to be superwoman; it’s OK to ask for help.

I still love babies, and I find a lot of joy in being a mother to two closely spaced children. I no longer feel overwhelmed; I’m actually having a lot of fun. The challenge is giving both girls as much time and energy and attention as they need. I have learned to be creative and innovative in finding ways to do this, as well as knowing when I need to regain my personal balance and, therefore, being able to accept help.

5 thoughts on “Sibling Spacing: One Year Apart, Too Close or Just Right?”

  1. I’m glad i found this article. this answered all my parenting worries. We have the same birth spacing and i’m just so happy i’ve been able to come across this right before giving birth. thanks!

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