There Is A Perfect Age Gap For Siblings And It’s Not What You May Think

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I have written previously about considering having a third child. I have two right now- my daughter turns seven in a few weeks and my son is five. I have only known what it’s like to have children very close in age (they are 20 months apart) and I have to say- it’s pretty much amazing in nearly every way now that they are older. Thinking of having another gives me pause due to the large age gap. However, a new study suggests that there is a perfect age gap for siblings and it is definitely not what I would have guessed.

According to the Institute for Social and Economic Research, University of Essex, UK via iVillage, the perfect age gap between siblings is four years:

The new study, by the Institute for Social and Ecomonic Research, University of Essex, UK, examined 1,503 family groups – 3,532 individuals – and found that first-born females were 13% more ambitious than first-born boys, and that first-borns in general were 16% more likely to go on to higher education than their younger siblings.

The only time that siblings of different ages were equally likely to go on to higher education was if there was a four-year gap between them. The wider the age gap, the more likely university becomes.


I would think there are a few reasons for that- mainly, having to do with finances (four years of college- once one is finished, they can more easily pay for another child’s education) but also, a parent’s ability to pay attention to their children. I know that even though I now LOVE the age difference between my kids, I feel a bit sad looking back at how often I had to divert my attention from my toddler in order to care for my newborn and vice versa. I can see how having a bigger age difference could make it a lot easier to focus on each child since you can explain to your older one that they need to wait a few minutes so you can attend to the younger one. You can have more time to cuddle and read to your little one because your older child is better able to entertain themselves.

Since this study only focused on education, there are obviously other factors to determine the “perfect” age difference between kids and nothing is a guarantee. For us, we very much wanted our kids to be close friends and able to play together as soon as possible. We thought having them close in age would facilitate that and fortunately, we were right. Our kids play beautifully together. That said, I know plenty of families with bigger age gaps and their kids get along great too. Each family has to do what is right for them and of course, there are things like infertility and taking a while longer than expected to get pregnant that are out of our control.

Besides my own kids, I have my own childhood experience with my siblings to consider. I have a brother two years younger than me and another brother nearly seven years younger than me. Luckily, we all get along but I am closer with the younger of the two. He was so much younger than me that we didn’t compete for the same toys or our parents attention. I had moved out of the house by the time he started middle school and I was more like a young aunt to him than an older sister. We have that same dynamic now in many ways and it’s great for us. It is the relationship I keep in mind when thinking about whether or not we will have more kids.

I’m sure studies can tell us a lot about the “perfect” age gap but I think that definition changes for every family. There is no special formula for success. Studies like these are certainly interesting but I don’t think anyone should let it determine how they plan their families.

(Image: Derek Latta/Shutterstock)


  1. aCongaLine

    September 6, 2014 at 5:24 pm

    I also had my kids 20 months apart.

    My brother and I are 5 years apart nearly to the day, and it wasn’t that great when we were kids. We didn’t get along. I was jealous of my classmates that had brothers and sisters closer to their age- my brother was such a little person for most of my childhood. He was a spoiled brat and I was a selfish jerk, buuuuut, now that we’re adults (and live 700 miles away from each other)? we’re really really close. I think that us not getting along had more to do with our particular personalities, though, and not the age gap. He was definitely fun as a baby 🙂

    Go for it. 🙂

  2. Angi Dudas

    September 6, 2014 at 5:30 pm

    My kids are 6 years apart and I wouldn’t have it any other way. My son was in school when his sister was born and it was perfect. It can drive him crazy now that he is a teen, but for the most part they get along.

  3. Kheldarson

    September 6, 2014 at 5:37 pm

    My brother and I are 23 months apart (he’s a March, and I’m an April), and we both went to the same college. My next brother in line (10 years younger than I) is now headed to college, and so far all of us have gotten full scholarships. There’s one more brother (12 years younger than I), so we’ll see if the trend continues. So education level may have more to do with how much your parents push you, as a note.

    Although having such a large gap may be adversely affecting my mom right now. She’s been getting really weepy lately.

  4. Jayamama

    September 6, 2014 at 6:16 pm

    My kids are 23 months apart. I certainly would have planned for them to be further apart, because this is a heck of a lot of work right now. Hopefully, it will later have more perks. My younger brother and I are just short of three years apart, and my older brothers are eight and ten years older than me. I’m close to all of them, but my younger brother is the only one who really feels like a sibling. I’m hoping for at least a three year gap between my younger and the next one, but not much more.

    • smishsmash

      September 6, 2014 at 6:30 pm

      My kids are 18 months apart and man, I am desperately clinging to any sightings of statements that this is going to work out well eventually, because we’re pretty overwhelmed right now while they’re both under 3. Please mommyish, tell me it gets better. Lie if you have to. I’ll go get the wine and be right back.

    • Sara610

      September 6, 2014 at 7:37 pm

      My brother-in-law and his wife have two kids who are just over a year apart, and what they’ve said is that things were really, really tough for the first three or four years, but then got steadily easier and by the time they were in middle-elementary age, it was downright awesome. Hope that helps!

    • Jayamama

      September 6, 2014 at 7:50 pm

      My MIL has four kids, currently 29, 26, 22, and 16. She homeschooled them all, so she’s been around the block. She says the hardest time for her was when she had two kids under four years old. Apparently once the oldest is able to help and doesn’t need so much supervision, it starts to get easier. Of course, the second (my husband) was also a holy terror, so that may have something to do with it, but all accounts I’ve gotten say that gets easier after a while. I’m desperately clinging to that, too, because my younger is getting ready to walk any time now, and I am absolutely terrified.

    • Katherine Handcock

      September 6, 2014 at 8:09 pm

      Wholeheartedly agree. My kids are 22 months apart, and I noticed a HUGE difference once my son hit the four year old mark. Suddenly, things got much easier – and they’re getting even easier with every month since. It does get better! Every stage has its challenges, but I find the “total dependence” stage extremely frustrating — especially when they’re still dependent, but old enough to want to challenge you.

    • smishsmash

      September 6, 2014 at 10:34 pm

      Thanks ladies!

      My little guy is 15 mos and my older guy is 2 and a half and they definitely both have IDEAS about how things should go but still lack some pretty basic communication skills, so there’s been a lot of shoving and crying going on between them and it is pretty stressful.

    • SunnyD847

      September 6, 2014 at 11:16 pm

      I did start my older girl in preschool at 2 1/2 mostly because I felt guilty that her sister had never had my undivided attention. It may have helped for them to have some time apart a few days a week. Also, getting out of the house as much as possible was good. We lived in San Diego at the time and belonged to a moms group that had lots of outdoor play opportunities, so we could get out a lot.

    • Katherine Handcock

      September 7, 2014 at 6:01 am

      Seconding both the preschool and the getting out of the house. Both make a big difference. For preschool, the older kid feels special and the younger kid gets some one-on-one time. For getting out of the house, everybody’s got stuff other than harassing each other to think about 😉

    • SunnyD847

      September 6, 2014 at 10:11 pm

      My girls are also 18 months apart and I think it’s fantastic. They are 14 and almost 13 now. I remember it being tough having a newborn when the older one was still too young to really follow directions or understand waiting, but other than that, it’s always been amazing. They are great friends and support each other even though they have extremely different personalities.

  5. Katherine Handcock

    September 6, 2014 at 6:43 pm

    I think the effects of the age gap between siblings are very unique to families. For example, my husband and I are aggressively saving for college educations for our kids with a Canadian Registered Education Savings Plan; any choice about going or not going to university or college will be more about my kids than about our ability to help out financially. Similarly, my son just entered kindergarten; suddenly, I’ve got LOTS of time to spend with my 3 1/2 year old doing, well, anything that I didn’t have a week and a half ago.

    I think it’s much more important to choose spacing of kids based on what works for your family than on any research.

  6. ChickenKira

    September 6, 2014 at 7:19 pm

    Well, there is 4.5 years between my brother I we are both educated (or in the process of education, he’s only 21), but then, so is my cousin who is an only child, as is my best friend and her sister, and there is 6 years between them, and so are two other of my close friends, who are sisters who are 15 months apart.

    My husband and his brother also have the magic 4 years, and whilst my husband did receive a tertiary education, my brother in law just scraped by with finishing high school.

    I think that has a lot more to do with factors other than age gap, you know, the good old correlation does not equal causation thing.

    • Amber Leigh Wood

      September 6, 2014 at 7:59 pm

      My younger brother and I have the magic 4 year age gap and he didn’t even finish high school…. Did we just break the study? Lol

  7. CW

    September 6, 2014 at 7:38 pm

    Totally disagree as someone who is 4 years older than my middle brother and 8 years older than my youngest one. 4 years is probably the WORST age gap in terms of sibling rivalry because the child distinctly remembers a time before the younger sibling came along. 2.5 to 3 years is IMHO perfect because the older child is more independent and hopefully potty trained before the next kid is born, but the older sibling doesn’t remember a time before the younger one was around so less sibling rivalry.

    • EX

      September 6, 2014 at 8:36 pm

      I agree with this. My brother’s kids are 4 years apart and it is rough. First it was the jealousy and now they really struggle to find things to entertain both kids – they are far apart enough in age to have different interests, but the older one is not yet mature or patient enough to indulge the younger’s interests.

    • Boozy Shark Lee

      September 6, 2014 at 9:23 pm

      My brother is 4 years younger than me and we have always been close. I was always fiercely protective of him. My husband and his sister are 4 years apart and they have always been close too.

    • M.

      September 7, 2014 at 6:58 am

      I think that’s an individual to individual difference. I’m 5 years older than my younger sister, and while I definitely had some jealousy issues, especially when she was young, we grew up pretty close (in between the fighting) and are very close in adulthood. My husband and his brother are also 5 years apart and they were always very close and my husband didn’t experience any of the negative aspects of the sibling relationship that I did. But my husband is a much more laid back person than me and just a sweeter person in general. Plus my mom was a SAHM and his mom worked, so I was used to my mom’s undivided attention 24-7 while he had more separation from his mother.

    • M.D.

      September 7, 2014 at 9:44 am

      My sons are 4 years apart and after about age 1-2 have been very very close (age 16 and 12 now). I think it has to do mostly with personality. Both are mostly easy going. My sister and I are 5 years apart and we never EVER got along…still don’t. Just like in the adult world with other things…it mainly is dependent on personality traits…unfortunately with siblings you just can’t trade one in for another one for everyone to get along…you get what you are given. My third child was born 11 years after my second and although she is almost considered an only child at this point I don’t think I want to have another just because I realize how I could have a clash in personalities and I was already very very lucky once.

    • Liz

      September 7, 2014 at 10:32 am

      My sister and I had plenty of sibling rivalry at 2.5 years apart, but we were also best friends. I think it’s the perfect gap.

    • NotTakenNotAvailable

      September 7, 2014 at 6:45 pm

      By the time I was old enough to really understand things like cause and effect and therefore how my life would be impacted by having a younger sibling (which was also around the first time I’d been around babies and was able to learn how shrieky they are), I was pretty content to announce to my parents that it would be perfectly acceptable to remain an only child, so I agree that there’s something to the notion of inflicting younger siblings on your kids before they’re able to form opinions on the matter. Of course, I’ve just got the type of personality where I don’t care much for people in general and could totally see having a strained relationship with younger siblings no matter what the age gap would have been.

  8. Cas

    September 6, 2014 at 7:54 pm

    My brother and I are 18 months apart and get along fine. My sister and I are 20 YEARS apart and will probably never have much of a relationship. I’ve met her once and have my own kid and life to handle. 3-5 years seems like a good age gap to me.

  9. 2Well

    September 6, 2014 at 9:10 pm

    My sister is 11 years younger than I am. If you’ve got an 11 year old daughter and you want to emphasize the joys of condoms and pills, have a baby.

    • NotTakenNotAvailable

      September 7, 2014 at 6:53 pm

      My mother had a pregnancy scare when I was thirteen with the only man she dated after my parents’ separation. I was kind enough to tell her that if she did wind up having a baby, I would waste no time moving in with my father. I think it’s a real testament to her loneliness that she didn’t kick me out on general principle even after the test came back negative.

    • Maya

      September 7, 2014 at 11:25 pm

      My brother was born when i was 15.
      Because of that i had my baby at 38. Unplanned pregnancy.

  10. marie

    September 7, 2014 at 12:24 am

    I think that the study is interesting, but too limited in focus to really tell you anything. The “right” gap is different for everyone. Mine are 16 months apart and I love it, but it was crazy busy at first and it still is at times. I love that we can do swimming, piano and soccer together, curl up on the couch and read the same books together, all enjoy the same rides at the amusement park together, etc. My friend has kids four years apart and spends all day driving to different activities, reading Curious George to one and Geronimo Stilton to another, etc. They went to Disney and spent the whole time split into two groups because one wanted all the thrill rides and the other was too short. In our family each stage is crazy but we’re all doing it together!

  11. JennyCP

    September 7, 2014 at 1:18 am

    I’m 8.5 years older than my sister (and only sibling). I definitely had only-child tendencies when I was younger, and we didn’t get along AT ALL until I left for college. (In my defense, she was a weird kid. There’s nothing like being 15 and your sister is insisting on going everywhere in public on all fours because she wants to be a dog.) Once I left for college though, I realized how important it was to be a good older sister, and we became quite close. Even now at 32 and 24, being an older sister is one of my most important roles. That said, I hope to only have a 3-4 year age gap between my son and a younger sibling.

    • Victoria

      September 7, 2014 at 12:48 pm

      My sister and I are also about 8.5 years apart, and the first ten years of her life was pretty rough for me because of the age difference. The moment I decided I was too old for Barbies was the moment when she was no longer in danger of eating the shoes and so, of course, that’s what I had to play with her, when she wanted to “hang out” with me and my friends it basically amounted to us babysitting and not being able to talk about anything we wanted to talk about. Which seems superficial, but to a sheltered teenager it seemed like the world’s greatest injustice.

      The upside is that by the time she hit high school, she had spent time around college and graduate students and became incredibly mature for her age to the point that she’s a college sophomore at 17. So, there is that advantage.

  12. cruiseyman

    September 7, 2014 at 5:49 am

    Don’t over think it, all kids are their own person and research for this can only ever be anecdotal and can’t definitively say that any particular age gap has produced any particular outcomes. FYI I’m the youngest of 4 girls, my siblings being 7, 10 and 12 years older than me and I have 2 boys 16 months apart. There is so much more to the equation than age gap, I think the most important aspect to consider before adding to your family is the physical and emotional health of the parents. If a child is wanted, loved and cared for, that is the most important thing, not the age gap between its siblings.

  13. M.

    September 7, 2014 at 7:12 am

    I think there are pros and cons to both ways and that individual personalities are a HUGE part of the sibling relationship equation. I’m pregnant with #2 right now and very worried about how my son is going to react when this baby is born. He’s still very clingy to me and he gets jealous a lot when I interact with his 3 one-year old cousins. He’ll be right at 3 1/2 when this one comes and I just have my fingers crossed that he’ll get used to the baby when it gets here. Sometimes I wish I’d had them closer together…or further apart. But this one is our surprise baby…we were initially planning about a 3 year gap and had discussed trying for #2 when my son was 2. But 2 came and went and he was a lot of work at the time and we just weren’t ready to commit to a 2nd…6 months later #2 decided it for us. I just have my fingers crossed that my son adjusts without too much turmoil.

  14. Eldest

    September 7, 2014 at 3:35 pm

    My brother and I are 20 months apart and we fought like cats and dogs for all of our childhood. We still don’t have a great relationship and it sucks!
    I wish we were closer because after all, he is my brother. And he is smart, and funny, and hard working. But we just can’t seem to get along. 🙁

  15. AlexMMR

    September 7, 2014 at 4:20 pm

    In my anecdotal experience, the farther apart in age, the closer the relationship. I dated a man who’s older siblings were I think 2 and 4 years older than him, and than a sister who was 16 years younger than him (surprise!). He was much closer to the younger sister than the siblings in his age group. My mother and her sister were 10 years apart and very close. My brother and I are 7 years apart and were very close growing up, but we aren’t really in the habit of spending time together as adults (but the love and good feelings are there).

  16. Rebecca

    September 7, 2014 at 8:45 pm

    This is so weird. All of these ‘spacing your children’ articles are weird. My first two kids are twins. So, if the perfect age difference between siblings os ‘three minutes’ sweet, otherwise, I’m not even close. And then two miscarriages. And then my son, almost three years later. I haven’t known a single person who got pregnant when they planned on getting pregnant – with the parents either being surprised with how quickly they got pregnant, or how long it took.

  17. alexesq33

    September 8, 2014 at 10:40 am

    My twins and 3rd baby will be 12 months apart (yes, on purpose!)., We planned it so that they would all grow up at almost the same age and we wouldn’t have toddlers trying to murder infants. Although, yes, it will probably suck for a couple years – especially the potty training time which will be extended with a third child starting right when the other 2 are done LOL

  18. Jill

    September 8, 2014 at 11:55 am

    This really depends on the family and the personalities involved. My older brother is 4 years older. Younger brother is 1.5 years younger. I get along well with both. I have relatives with kids super close in age who fight like cats and dogs. I also have some with decade or more differences who are super close.
    My MIL had 4 kids in quick succession and they don’t really have relationships amongst each other which is sad. I think we’ll shoot for two somewhat close together and either stop there or wait a few years for a third and maybe fourth.

  19. Rachel Sea

    September 8, 2014 at 1:30 pm

    My wife is 4 years younger than her brother, and she swears by it. Competition was minimal, and they never attended the same school at the same time. I think it also sounds very helpful to wait until a child has developed a sense of empathy to add a sibling.

  20. Larkin

    September 8, 2014 at 1:49 pm

    I remember reading an article once that claimed the “best” age gaps to avoid sibling rivalry were either less than 18 months OR over 5 years. Apparently, the 2-4 years range is basically the worst as far as rivalry goes… which, I suppose, makes sense.

    My brothers and I are super spaced out. My oldest brother is 16 years older than me, and my middle brother is 9 years older. We never had any sibling rivalry whatsoever, but my oldest brother honestly feels more like a cousin or something because I don’t remember ever living in the same house with him beyond occasional visits.

  21. AW

    September 8, 2014 at 9:01 pm

    I question whether the gap itself is causal. It could be that the same factors in a family that create a 4 years or more age gap between the kids may also be positively correlated with college attendance. For example, it could be that families of higher socioeconomic status (who are also more likely to be able to send their kids to college) are also more likely to put more space between their kids.

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