05/10/2011 11:45 am ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

Spacing Kids: Should You Have Your Children in Close Succession? A Cross-Cultural Conundrum

I was talking to a young mother last weekend at a children's party in Rome. Let's call her Giovanna. She's 24 and is the mother of Niccolò, who's 13 months old. Giovanna is very happy to be a mom and is enjoying her little one in a manner she'd never expected she would when she got pregnant.

"But, I'm petrified of having a second now," she told me. "I'm so tired and he saps me of all my energy."

Taken aback, I looked at her and asked, "Why on earth do you have to have a second now?"

"Because everyone tells me I need to have them close in age," she answered with an air of resignation.

Basically, all of Giovanna's friends and relatives insist on the importance of having kids as close together as possible, in order for them to learn how to play together and socialize as early as possible. So Giovanna lives with the anguish of not wanting a second child so soon, but with the concern that she is harming her son by not giving him a little brother or sister immediately.

"Excuse me, but you have to be kidding," Laura butted in. She's the mother of the 4-year-old who's celebrating her birthday. "I've really had enough of hearing this cock-and-bull story about needing to fire off children in close succession," she said indignantly. "Honestly, the moms I know that have small children that are very close in age are gasping for breath constantly and seem to be literally going crazy, while my friends whose children are spaced out by at least three or four years have much calmer families!"

I have to say, I think she's right. If I look around, that's exactly what I see. In homes in which the youngest kids are very close, I have to admit that I see plain chaos. But that's the least of my worries.

What I find heart-wrenching is the fact that the first- or second-borns that find themselves with a younger sibling when they're not much more than a year old automatically have to become "big." Due to the new circumstances, they are often not attended to emotionally for as long as they need to be, because their needs are immediately usurped by the new arrival. We know full well that until the age of 3 years, at least, children have a huge need for the attention of their parents in order to give them that security -- and knowledge of being loved -- that will accompany them throughout life.

Siblings are an immense enrichment in the life of a child, but, as a Roman pediatrician told me (and he's seen many a big family in the decades he's been practicing), it would be ideal to have kids at least three and a half years apart, if not four. That way, you as a mother can enjoy every child when he or she is tiny and desperately needs that physical contact, to be held and constantly cuddled. And as for your child, he'll be able to enjoy his parents without feeling that they've been unfairly torn from him with the premature arrival of another baby.

And while we're at it, let's blow a hole through the oft-mentioned theory that if you have them close together they'll play together (and that if you have them too far apart they'll never get on together). We all know some siblings that are very close in age but do not get on terribly well. And we all know sibling that are 4, 6 or even more years apart that get on wonderfully. And, of course, there are examples to the contrary as well.

Some moms choose to have children in close succession for work-reasons (taking maternity leave practically consecutively). That's a different story and a far more complicated one. But I believe it's important that these women not delude themselves that they are doing it for the good of their kids.

So, Giovanna, take your time; you're not depriving your son in the least.

If you wait a few years before thinking about having a second child, you'll be much more enthusiastic about it, and you'll be able to give both children the attention and calm they deserve.