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How many children should you have?

It is sometimes said that both large families and small ones feel sorry for one another. There's some truth in this. But is it better to have one child and focus all of your attention and resources on them? Or should you have two children, or several, so they always have each other, as well as you? There's no 'correct' answer, but the following points might help if this is a dilemma you're pondering.

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Only children

It goes without saying that there is a huge difference between having one child and having none. Your life will change dramatically and your choices will, from now on, involve another person. But having one single child is often said to be very different from having more than one.

Parents of 'only' children will point to many advantages. For instance, being able to focus all your resources on one child instead of having to share things out.

It's also true, that parents may need to adjust their lives less if they have one child. This can be a good thing if everyone is 'catered for', although it can be a bad thing if it results in the child always having to participate in adult activities, without the reverse happening.

What do only children say?

Single children have generally positive things to say about being an only child. These include: undivided attentions from their parents, no sibling rivalry and greater independence.

However, some parents say there's an increased risk of spoiling an only child and are concerned their offspring may turn out selfish. Some only children wish for a sibling and also feel greater pressure to succeed as your 'only hope'. And, on a darker note, if you need support in your old age, your only child may wish they weren't solely responsible for looking after you.

Two children

Research suggests that having two children is still most people's idea of the 'ideal' family size. Having said that, according to the Office for National Statistics, one-child families have been on the increase over the last two decades. And by 2012 there were more one-child families than parents with two children.

Some people say that having two children reduces the chance of spoiling and gives your current child a companion. It also means pregnancy is generally more straightforward the second time and clothes and toys can be handed down. Having a second child can also provide reassurance; if you're someone that worries a lot about what would happen to your children if something happened to you, you know they have each other.

But there are disadvantages to consider too. It will be tiring, particularly if your children are very close together. And it will of course be more expensive. There's also sibling rivalry to bear in mind.


Children who have a sibling have lots to say about what that means for them. Comments include:

  • "You can borrow their stuff."

  • "They borrow your stuff."

  • "They make big family dinners less awkward."

  • "They can be really embarrassing."

  • "Most of your friends without siblings think they're cool. Some feel sorry for you!"

  • "They'll be there your whole life."

  • "You can go halves on your parents' birthday presents."

  • "Long car journeys and family holidays aren't boring."

  • "If they're older they may introduce you to cool people, and fight all the battles for you."

  • "You might get smuggled in to a 15 movie when you're 13. But it might be horrible."

  • "Older siblings get to do everything first."

  • "They're there for you in times of need."

  • "You learn to share, and you get shared with - good and bad."

  • "You can blame them for everything."

  • "They blame you for everything."

Some of these are funny, or facetious - but they matter, because they're what real children say. Having a second child will change the life of your first child. But it probably won't be better or worse than it would otherwise have been; it will just be different.

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Three children

Parents of three or more children often say that the 'jump' from two to three children felt bigger than the jump from zero to one. Others say that it was easier than the jump from one to two. Some of the things that parents say online about having three children include:

  • The practicalities of life become more complicated when you are trying to juggle the demands of three. This can be stressful and exhausting and at times life can feel really chaotic.

  • Cars are expensive. A third child means a jump up in price from a car that will carry two plus two comfortably to one that carries two plus three, particularly if all three need child seats.

  • The rewards of having three children that love you are just as multiplied as the stresses.

  • So many holiday and restaurant packages are for '2 plus 2'. Hotel 'family rooms' hardly ever accommodate five.

Even more ...

The things that people say about having three children become magnified in families who have four or more. These families have many positive things to say about large family size. Because they will have moved gradually, and mainly through choice, from being a large to a very large family, they generally are people who have already decided that the trade-off between the stresses and the advantages of lots of children is worth making.

Families with lots of children talk about the experience being exhausting, chaotic and physically wearing. They talk about the need for their children to understand financial discipline, and to share and to hand things down. However, they also talk about massive benefits of support between siblings and from children to parents, about the fun and excitement large families generate, about how rewarding this can be and about feeling reassured that their children will always have each other.

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The impact on your relationship

Having a baby is an enormous task. Whilst it is a wonderful one, a new baby will take your attention away from each other. It can bond a good relationship, and enhance it with a new, shared task that makes you appreciate each other more. It can also mean you need to work harder to keep your relationship as good as you want it to be.

There is evidence, from large studies of families, that having children makes couples more likely to stay together but less likely to feel happy and fulfilled by their relationship.

Over time, on average, relationship satisfaction tends to fall whatever you do. The drop in this relationship happiness happens more quickly in couples who have children - probably because they cease to be mainly interested in each other. Worse still, the decrease in relationship satisfaction affects overall happiness. Despite this, the same studies show that many people rate parenting as their greatest joy in life.

Dr Mary Lowth is an author or the original author of this leaflet.

Article history

The information on this page is peer reviewed by qualified clinicians.

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