In the course of routine office visits with new parents, I find I can expect a question about when to have a second child. The question usually comes during the baby’s first spurts of independence.

After adjusting to their firstborn, with the first few months of sleepless nights and erratic schedules behind them, new parents begin to experience the pure euphoria of being in love.

Every time they look at their 4-month-old, he smiles back at them adoringly. A vocalization from parents produces a sigh or an “ooh” in response.

At just that point, surprising as it may seem, one of the parents may ask me, “What would be the best time to have another baby?” Or a breast-feeding mother may ask, “When should I wean him?”

If I pursue either of these questions with the parents, it becomes clear they don’t actually want another baby yet; nor does the mother want to wean this one. But the questions help the parents balance their overwhelming attachment to the baby as he grows more independent.

At 4 or 5 months, a baby shows a first ripple of independence. He interrupts a feeding to look around, to listen to a door close in the next room, to gurgle up at his mother, to smile brightly across the room at his father.

For a mother, these moments may be the first signals that the baby doesn’t need her as much anymore. For the baby, they represent a burst in his awareness of things and people around him.

For breast-feeding mothers, this can also be a physically vulnerable time for conceiving the next pregnancy. I have seen many instances of unexpected second pregnancies that were started during this interval because the mother thought she was protected by lactation.

Having two children as close together as 14 to 18 months is as challenging as having twins. The danger for the babies is that a physically exhausted mother is likely to make one of two unconscious choices.

On the one hand, she may lump the children together, treating them as if they are the same age. On the other, she may press the older toddler to grow up too quickly.

In planning for a second child, parents should try to keep in mind their own energy and tolerance. Their own reasons for hurrying or delaying a second pregnancy may be the best guidelines they can follow.

For example, a mother who can take time off for each baby, but who wants to have her family quickly so she can get back to work, may resent being kept at home for too long and indirectly take it out on her family.

SECOND-CHILD GUIDANCE

1. Assume that it will be hard to give up the intense, reciprocally rewarding relationship with your first child. If you have enough time to begin feeling that you’ve really done all you can for him, your choice becomes easier.

2. As you plan for a second child, expect the normal but passionate mix of independence and negativism in your toddler. Does he mean no when he says it so forcefully, or does he really mean yes? Consider planning for the second child to arrive after some of this second-year turmoil has had a chance to be resolved.

3. Don’t worry about whether a 2 1/2- to 3-year spacing between children means they will be too far apart to be friends as they get older. My own experience has led me to the conclusion that, if the parents can enjoy the spacing of their family, their children will be better friends for it.

Questions or comments should be addressed to Dr. T. Berry Brazelton and Dr. Joshua Sparrow, care of The New York Times Syndicate, 620 Eighth Ave., 5th Floor, New York, NY 10018. Questions may also be sent by email to: [email protected]