I hadn't thought much about how many kids I wanted until my first was born. Immediately I was confronted with decisions: Should I get rid of my maternity clothes? Should I be saving these newborn onesies?
My partner (now husband) and I pretty quickly decided we were all-in on the baby thing and we'd go for another. But when? A friend I asked for advice told me she spent four years blissed out on motherhood with her first until one day she just felt her ovaries screaming, "I need another baby!" Before she was done, she had four more.
Turns out there are a lot of things to consider in planning a family. I talked to other parents about what they did and didn't like about the age spacing between their kids - or their siblings. Here's what they said.
Less than a year apart
Annalise's parents adopted two kids when she was a toddler, one of whom was just three months older than her. "Having my brother in my same grade - sharing friends, fighting over car-use, music, behavior at school, arranging dates for each other - was both painful and wonderful," she said. "That kind of sharing, and learning to distinguish yourself from the other while showing love and support and receiving both, is special."
There are risks to having kids so close together, though, particularly if they're biological children. A woman's body isn't really back to normal for 18 months after giving birth, and studies show that anemia and other complications are more common in pregnancies that are closer together. Some experts recommend waiting at least 27 months between births.
There is some logic in staying in the trenches of babyhood for a short time and then being done with it. Once you've started to taste freedom - no longer nursing or being needed at night, for example - you don't have to start all over again with a newborn. From there, your family can go through successive stages more or less together.
There's no overestimating how trying that first year can be, though. Babies who are less than a year apart can even be more demanding than twins, because they're not exactly in sync with each other. A 1-year-old's needs and schedules are different from a newborn's. And in the mornings, there is no telling them to brush their teeth or get their shoes on. You must do that for both of them. Plus you will need two of baby items, such as cribs and high chairs, that other parents can save and reuse.
Some parents love having kids so close together, because they are bound to have a close relationship. That includes rivalry, but also a special bond. The older child has no memory of a time before the younger one arrived, making jealousy less of a concern.
Kerry got the worst of both worlds when her easy baby turned into a challenging 2-year-old just as the new baby arrived. And the baby - who grew into a lovely toddler - was fussy as a newborn. "It was harder to savor the baby stage of the second because we were all in survival mode," she said.
Some parents dread the idea of having two kids in diapers. Kerry didn't mind that, but said potty-training the big kid with a baby crawling around was a pain.
Once she got through those trying early years, though, having them so close together made life easier. Now that they're 5 and 7, they play together frequently. It's easy to find travel, weekend activities and TV shows they both like. And having kids close together means there's more time when they're at the same school - simplifying drop-off and pickup routines.
Competition, however, can be fierce. Beth says her relationship with her sister, who is 22 months younger, was "strained" for a decade while they were growing up. "People couldn't really tell us apart," Beth said. "We got the same gifts all the time. And she was close enough in age to want the same things I did even though she wasn't quite old enough for it."
Studies have also shown that kids born two years apart struggle with negative self-image, perhaps because they felt they didn't get enough attention.
Parenting a 3-year-old means navigating ever-shifting moods and responding to illogical demands. Changes to routine are challenging at this age, and a new baby changes just about everything. Meanwhile, the child might be out of diapers - or you might be having power struggles about potty training.
If the older child is in day care when you have a baby, consider keeping him there. It will make things easier on you and maintain the older child's routine.
Three-year-olds are more independent and more verbal than 2-year-olds, and that makes a huge difference. Need big sis to hang out and play with her trucks for a little while so you can get the baby to sleep? That might be possible. Need big brother to grab the wipes out of the diaper bag? Done.
And kids grow up. Whatever it's like having a newborn and a 3-year-old, having a 1-year-old and a 4-year-old will be different - and more likely easier, with the older child becoming more helpful and better at impulse control just as the baby is becoming more of a playmate.
Four or five years
A bigger gap means your kids might not bond as much when they're young, but there's an awesome trade-off: You get more time and space to bond with each child.
The years before the second baby arrives can be a precious period of bonding with your first. By having your undivided attention for the first several years of his life, he will give you more space when the second arrives. By the time he's 4 or 5, your older child is beginning to need less from you and is starting to occupy his own time a little more. Especially if the big kid is in school during the day, you're free to enjoy quiet daytime cuddles with the newborn - or at least have some time when you don't have to juggle the needs of two children simultaneously.
A child this age is likely to be enormously entertaining to a baby. And by the time your baby is walking and talking, the older child will be able to help in more significant ways, such as brushing teeth, changing clothes, reading bedtime stories and singing lullabies.
Even with a large age difference, though, jealousy can be intense. The older child has gotten used to having your undivided attention, and is articulate enough to voice displeasure at having to share. They may regress, or wish they could.
More than five years
Annalise - the one with the brother in the same grade at school - also has sisters who are 12, 14, 16 and 19 years older than she is, and she says her relationships with them are among "the greatest joys of my life."
"To receive so much support and guidance but zero competition from them was unique," she said. "Seeing them go through college, marriage, pregnancy and having so many nieces and nephews around as a teenager is grounding and an important guide."
Siblings who are much older, however, can feel more like uncles and aunts than brothers and sisters, and might even fall into the role of disciplinarian.
In many cases, children spaced far apart just aren't that close as kids. That was true of Julia and her brother, seven years her senior, until they were adults. Now, Julia says, she appreciates that "he can tell me things about my family's early life together that I'd have no way of knowing or remembering."
Tanya C. Snyder is a Washington, D.C.-based reporter and parent of two.