Toddler and baby, small age gapAlamy

I was walking around Sainsbury's recently with my three children crammed into the trolley; the three-year-old and 16-month-old fighting over breadsticks in the front and the four-year-old surfing in the main compartment stamping on the bread and squashing the grapes.

This lovely woman came over to ask about the children. All proud as a peacock I told her their names and ages and she looked at me in utter bemusement. "What was the great rush?" she enquired.

"What do you mean?" I said.

"Well why didn't you space them out and then you could have enjoyed each of them more."

Apart from being slightly flabbergasted that she was passing judgement on my baby making decisions in the bakery aisle (as well as realising the Touche Eclat wasn't working and I looked as exhausted as I felt), she had a point.

I do question why I wanted them so close together. I suppose I was slightly fixated that they should 'grow up together', but even if there had been three years between them they still would have done that!

I'm only 35 so there wasn't a mad fertility rush either. Another part of me wanted to get the nappies and sleepless nights done in one go. But some days that feels like craziness – yesterday the baby was crying because he'd banged his head, the eldest was crying because the baby was in pain and the middle one joined in because I'd stopped reading Angelina Ballerina.

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In some ways I feel there is a social pressure to have children close together. The minute number one hits 12 months, family are asking when you're going to produce a sibling.

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Ella, 37, a researcher from Cardiff was recently lamenting the 'huge' age gap between her five- year-old and the tiny baby she cradled. "We were trying for a while and I wanted them to be best mates but they won't have anything in common," she said. She also said many friends had stopped asking about number two as the gap was so big.

In many ways Ella will have been doing her body at least a good service. The Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecology recommends leaving at least a year's gap between having a baby and getting pregnant (there are only 10 months between number one and number two for me) to give your body time to recover.

Findings from the Centre for Population Studies in 2006 showed anything less than an 18 month gap reduced a woman's life expectancy. Apart from the strain of caring there is the physical impact on a women's body.

But Belinda Phipps chief executive of the NCT warns against being so prescriptive: "There is no way anyone should be telling women when they 'should' be having babies. While health is an important factor the decision is also about childcare, finance, a woman's career and of course the wishes of her partner."

Clare, 39, a full time mother from Birmingham, has three children, with five years between each.
"I have been able to give each one far more attention," she explains. "I rarely feel pulled in all directions. Each time the newborn has had all day when the older ones are at school plus there is never squabbling as all they have different interests."

Clare also argues it makes each child more individual as they're not lumped in with a sibling. This is certainly something I can see as my older two are simply known as 'the girls'.

Clinical psychologist Linda Blair and author of Birth Order stresses other advantages for the children; "Older siblings get a sense of pride in helping younger ones and learning to care," she explains. "But on the down side younger siblings often give up on things quickly as there are so many people to do it for them."

But for many women the size of the age gap isn't really a choice. Tracey, 41, from Croydon had two children very quickly; number two was born exactly one year and one day after number one.

"It wasn't exactly planned. We weren't using contraception but it was so soon after we thought my normal cycle wouldn't have kicked in," she explains.

There are clear advantages of children close together. "While sibling rivalry is more likely because needs are very similar, the more intense an emotion you share the closer you are long term," explains Linda Blair.

And ultimately as she says perhaps there is no ideal gap.

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The best gap is the one you have. If you are happy then your children feel that you are happy with them and there is no greater gift you can give them.

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What's the age gap between your children? What do you think is 'the ideal'?

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