Want Another? Deciding Whether and When to Have Another Child

new baby

Many factors go into the decision to have more children, including the mother's age and family finances.

by Kathryn Sucich

Nicole Downing of Tewksbury, Massachusetts knows firsthand how tough parenting can be. Her 20-month-old daughter, Sarah, has already been treated for a number of medical conditions, including a hip problem and allergies to eggs, dairy and nuts.

Some parents might feel overwhelmed after having one child who requires so much attention. But Nicole and her husband, Michael Downing, are considering having another child in the near future.

When it comes to whether and when to have more children, there is no standard approach to making the decision. What's right for one family may be impossible for another, says Sandra Dupcak, a Framingham, MA-based clinical psychologist who specializes in working with children and families. In her practice, Dupcak sees couples like the Downings who are emotionally ready to handle another child within a couple of years of their first. Other couples need to wait four or five years - or even stop having children altogether - because they just can't handle the extra pressure, especially when one child requires special care.

"It's so dependent on the parents," Dupcak says. "What's stressful for one set of parents isn't for another."

For most parents, deciding whether and when or have another child is a careful balance - a weighing of the responsibilities involved, health considerations, older children's desire to have another sibling, and often a gut feeling. One thing is for sure: it's a decision that most parents don't take lightly.

Pregnancy Considerations

Say that you are leaning toward having more than one child. There's a lot of medical research on the optimal spacing of childbirths for both mother's and baby's health. A study published recently in the Journal of the American Medical Association concluded that mothers should space their pregnancies 18 to 59 months apart to reduce risks of preterm birth and low-birth-weight babies.

Of course, moms have their own ideas about healthy spacing between babies. Kathy Woolfrey, 31, a mom of two, has had two easy pregnancies so far, but says she needs time to recuperate between having children. As a physical therapist, she's required to do heavy lifting and bending on the job that can be difficult both during and after pregnancy.

"I need to get my body back in shape after each pregnancy to lower my risk of injuring my back from weak, overstretched abdominal muscles," says Woolfrey. "I want my body to be my own again for at least a year before getting pregnant again."

Moms are also very aware of the connection between their age and health and their baby's health. Patti Urquhart, 28, is up to date on the latest medical statistics. When she had her 14-month-old son, Cameron, she was tested for Down's syndrome.

"My chances at 26 were something like 1 in 1,100. They told me that the older you get, the chances get extremely higher," says Urquhart. She and her husband, Jason, are hoping to have another child as soon as possible.

Downing would also like to have another child soon, and says she'd like to be done having kids by age 35. Health is not her main concern - rather, she realizes she'll probably have to stay home with her kids because of the rising cost of daycare; knowing this, she says, she'd like to re-enter the workforce by age 40.

"I work in the technology field and the longer I stay away, the harder it will be to get back into the swing of things," says Downing. "I want to be a great mom who can also work outside the home."

The Cost of Another Child

Work and finances are major drivers in parents' decisions on whether and when to have another child. There's good reason: a recent report by the National Association of Child Care Resource and Referral Agencies (NACCRRA) says that the average cost of infant daycare in Massachusetts is $13,480, which represents nearly 15 percent of an average two-parent family's income.

First-time parents often struggle with the decision on whether to work outside the home or stay at home with their newborn. However, for second- and third-time parents, the staggering cost of daycare often forces an outcome: either one of the parents stays at home, or the couple waits until the older sibling is in school before having another baby.

There's no doubt about it - a new baby is expensive. The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) reports that a two-parent family in the Northeast who makes between $43,700 and $73,500 each year can expect to pay just over $200,000 for a child during its first 17 years of life. If they make more than $73,500 a year, the cost shoots up to $286,000 for the same child. And that's even before the cost of college is factored in.

While many parents plan out their costs for a new baby, Rick Miller, founder of Sensible Financial Planning, based in Cambridge, says there are many costs that parents don't consider. For example, families may move to a bigger home to accommodate more children, as well as buy a more family-friendly car.

Woolfrey is thinking about the financial impact a third child would have on her family. "Even our Ford Explorer will not handle three car seats," she says. "That means upgrading to a bigger vehicle and spending more in gas per week."

And the Woolfreys are adding a second level to their two-bedroom ranch to make more room for their 2-year-old and 3-month-old sons, as well as the third child they'd like to have in a couple of years.

Thinking down the road, what about that cost of college? Miller says college costs are currently going up faster than inflation, and adds, "When that will end, we don't know." If costs continue to rise, he estimates, a baby born today who attends a private college or university in 2024 will be paying about $100,000 per year in tuition, room and board.

While that news is pretty sobering, Miller suggests ways to prepare for those costs, including:

  • a 529 savings plan, a tax-advantaged plan in which parents can sock away money for their children's educations; and

  • alternatives to formal daycare, such as daycare offered by churches or nonprofits.

Parents might also consider finding a job that offers on-side daycare or sharing an au pair or nanny with other family members or friends.

Can You Handle Another?

Money aside, the other big issue that parents must contend with is whether they can handle the added stress and responsibility that comes with a second or subsequent child. According to Dupcak, each child has a unique personality and temperament, and one active or difficult child can impact a couple's decision on whether to have more kids. Parents themselves need to be able to work well together, to react to stress similarly.

"Raising children is extremely difficult to do well," says Dupcak. "How a couple works together, chooses to discipline and how they work out care - that's the centerpiece to whether couples decide to have more children."

Jennifer McLaughlin, 30, had her daughter when she was 22. She says the experience was so overwhelming that she never considered having more children. Now she's thinking about having another child in the next two years but is concerned that a newborn would completely change her family's life.

"I am very used to my life being the way it is now," says McLaughlin. "I'm not sure that throwing a newborn into the mix would quite work as well as it might have a few years ago."

A support system of family or friends is also important in a couple's decision to have more children, says Dupcak. She has found that couples who are isolated, either living away from family or living extremely busy lives, tend to have fewer children because they don't have a network of help available.

What's Best for the Older Kids?

A newborn impacts his parents' lives and those of his older siblings.

McLaughlin says her 8-year-old is used to being the center of attention and might not like a new baby taking some of her spotlight. But McLaughlin would also like her daughter to have a sibling so that she'll have family around when she's older.

That's a sentiment shared by a lot of parents, including Urquhart. "My sister and I are two years apart and she has been there for me every day," she says. "I would like to have Cam experience that, too."

And then there's that pure and simple joy that a new baby can bring to the whole family. Nicole Downing has faced difficulties with her daughter's medical problems and she acknowledges that her work and family life will change with another child. But when she thinks about having another baby, she says, "Who wouldn't want more children? Their sweet smell, their lovable coos and teaching and molding a fresh mind. Priceless!"


Kathryn Sucich is a freelance writer and mother from Framingham, Massachusetts.

First published in The Boston Parents Paper, a Dominion Parenting Media publication.