Monday, November 07, 2011

Child Spacing-- does it matter?

Today I'm going to throw something out there that we don't often hear about:  the effect child-spacing has on the health & intelligence of the children of a family.  No, this isn't the old birth-order idea, where you expect the firstborn to be responsible, smart, and strong-willed, with the youngest being the baby, often the clown... No, I'm talking strictly nutrition here.  What do I mean?

Here in the states 2 years is often seen as the ideal (or most common) age between children in a family.  It's not uncommon to have even less "space" between them, with many families having several children each spaced a mere 15 to 18 months apart.  One family I know had 2 pregnancies within a school year (11 months apart), bringing their family total to 5 children under the age of 7 by year's end.  While we might shake our heads in terror at the thought of caring for that many small children, one thing we don't usually consider is the immense strain conceiving, carrying and nursing each child is on the mom's body. Babies aren't made from nothing-- they take huge amounts of energy, vitamins, minerals, proteins & fats to properly function.

Traditionally, worldwide, the 'ideal' space between children in one family was seen as 3 years.  I like the way the Healthy Home Economist puts it:
"Traditional cultures knew that proper spacing between children was necessary to ensure that younger siblings were as healthy and smart as the first.    Tribes practiced this through a system of multiple wives or abstinence in the monogamous cultures.
The minimum time between children of the same mother was 3 years.  Any time frame less than that was frowned upon and even looked at with scorn as it opened up the very real possibility of a child with less ability and intelligence or even birth defects.   Three years between pregnancies gave Mom the opportunity to breastfeed the child for an extended period of time and also to replenish her own nutritional stores before gestation began anew.  "  Please read her whole article here.
This idea intrigued me. Instinctively I had personally known I didn't want to get pregnant right away after having Eowyn for at least two reasons-- I wanted to make sure she got to nurse for an extended period of time (especially with us being so selective about the vaccines she gets), and I knew that my body would need a long time to replenish, especially with all the lack of nutritional intake I was able to have during my pregnancy... so much of it was coming right back up.   Once I weaned Eowyn, I still wanted a few months at least of "stocking up" in case baby #2 brought as much of a hiatus on my eating as his/her sister did.
"Maternal nutritional depletion" is a "plausible explanation" for why short periods between pregnancies can mean harmful birthing outcomes, particularly in developing countries." (Abstract from 2006 study published in the AMJ)
I've since found phrases in literature such as "Three to Five Saves Lives"-- referring to the fact that waiting three to five years between child births actually increases the odds of Baby #2's survival.  While this is especially true in developing countries, it is still a valid consideration all over the world.  Read more here or here.

Some might point to their (seemingly) healthy kids and say "well, they're 15 months apart and they turned out fine!" and it could be absolutely true... but what about Mama?  (Or baby #4 if your reserves become non-existent?)  I remember reading Willa Cather & other pioneer-era stories and noticing that it was almost expected for women to lose teeth with every pregnancy.  Why might this be? God has designed us so perfectly to pull any and every nutrient the baby needs from wherever can be found-- be it our bones & teeth, our reserve stores, or our diet. (You can also be more at risk for cavities if you vomit a lot during pregnancy.  yuck.)  For early American farmers who might have had several children closely spaced (even if many died in infancy) this could mean mothers were so nutrient-starved that their bodies took from their own teeth, especially if it was a lean time such as winter after a poor harvest.  Teeth are also a good indicator of our internal healthWhen Dr. Price, a dentist, researched traditional people groups around the world, he found that tooth decay and degenerative diseases went hand in hand.  See a good summary of his findings here.  Basically, if your teeth start having problems, that's a red flag that you've got deeper issues going on internally.

Pregnancies right on top of the other (less than 2 years apart) usually lead to a malnourished mother. Maternal health & diet has a huge effect on kids.  Just how big we probably don't know.  One study with rats seems to indicate that our diets while pregnant can influence our grandchildren! Crazy!  In some ways, a prenatal diet can have more lasting effects than breastfeeding-- nothing is more crucial than a foundation, and bodies are being built during pregnancy.  So on the one hand, starting out with plenty of reserves is really important, but on the other, maintaining a nutrient-dense diet during pregnancy is just as important.  I felt that for me, since I knew I'd probably have food aversions & general inability to keep food down (as I did for Eowyn) that a solid foundation was even more crucial.  I wanted a bit of nutritional wiggle-room during pregnancy!

One of the reasons I so strongly resist the "I trust God with my child bearing so I won't do anything to affect it" line of thinking is that it so often puts kids so close together that the mother is physiologically maxed out, not to mention run ragged emotionally.  (and how many parents might welcome MORE children if they had more space between them?)  For many, breast-feeding is a natural child-spacer, especially if you're eating lots of whole foods without lots of hormones in them... but for some, breast feeding isn't enough.  Maybe it's genetics, or age, or diet, or all of the above.  I love the idea of LAM, but am still trying to research it before I put all my trust in it.  I know I didn't want to risk it myself!  :)  God gives us all sorts of ways to be responsible as we trust Him and use the myriad of means available to us... I'm so thankful we have ways today of attempting child-spacing besides polygamy or 2 years of abstinence!!

Of course, so far I've only mentioned physical factors in spacing our children.  However, there are a whole host of factors each couple should take into account.  I like the way Kate at Modern Alternative Mama put it in one of her follow-up comments:
"The problem (I think for many) is that there are just SO many considerations with child spacing, not just perfect health. Babies can be healthy at 2 years apart even if they'd be better at 2.5 or 3 years apart. But there's family situation, finances, siblings needs, etc. etc. to consider too. I do LOVE how close my first two are, now. [...]  I like people to know about traditional child spacing because it can help them to make a decision, it can be a part of what they consider. It can also answer questions for them about maybe why they're struggling to get pregnant or having miscarriages or other issues like that. So, I "report" it, knowing full well that while it's the "best" idea, that we don't live in a perfect world. Does that make sense? I hope."
I totally feel that tension.  I definitely wanted a second baby a bit earlier than what we will have, but even as I struggled with my impatience I knew that the few months difference wouldn't matter in the long run at all, and that the Lord was doing what was right by me.  Looking back, it could be that I needed those extra few months with no strain on my body to get ready for this baby, or for more babies or health challenges down the road.  So, yes-- take this information on child spacing and its benefits, and include that in your schema for deciding when to seek to add more children to your home, with prayer & trust in the Lord.  And if He brings a child to your home earlier than you expected, know that He will provide all that is needed... and eat healthier than ever!!  :)

Feel free to comment, agree, or protest!  I welcome your thoughts!  What were some factors you would consider in trying to conceive (again)?


teamforest said...

It's an interesting concept. I think the deciding factor for Gabe and me was parental age. We didn't have the luxury of youth (i.e. marrying young) for extended spacing when we started our family. We were in our 30s when God finally brought us to each other, and I will be of "advanced maternal age" when our second one is born, Lord-willing. Our two will be 2 years and 3 months apart, and from the risk statistics that we learned and that I am already experiencing (with one miscarriage and now an ultrasound result that has some warning signs for our little unborn girl), I wasn't comfortable with waiting any longer. Perhaps those problems are due to the lack of proper spacing, and perhaps age. Either way, being older parents carries its wear and tear both physically and emotionally.

Eowyn's Heir said...

Thanks for stopping by! I totally get the difficulties that come in "Real Life," which is always less than perfect (thanks to the Curse). I think this is just a piece of the puzzle every parent has to fit together (and that is often overruled by God anyway!)-- it's just a piece many Americans never even consider. What a blessing to have a husband and precious little ones, no matter when they come or how often! I'm sure glad Gabe found you!! (the world is now a MUCH better place ;D)