Sunday, January 13, 2013

Ancient Child Spacing Wisdom

Here is what I know about child spacing:

Hunter-Gatherers had their children 3-6 years apart and usually had 4-5 children. 

What this information means to me is that my body evolved to function best having babies every 3-6 years and to have 4-5 children, but that doesn't mean, should I want to have twelve babies in twelve years, that my body could not do it.

However, in the 1920's Weston A. Price spent over a decade traveling the globe looking for the healthiest people in the world (a control group to which he could compare Americans). He recorded the dietary and lifestyle habits of the thirteen or so native groups he considered to be the healthiest people in the world and noted that they followed this ancient pattern of spacing children no closer than three years. He learned that the native people believed that a baby born closer than three years after a sibling was considered to be unhealthy. He looked into this and found evidence enough to convince him of the validity of this concern. In the photographs he includes in his book Nutrition and Physical Degeneration, one can see the perfectly straight, white teeth of siblings spaced 3 or more years apart and the crooked teeth of the sibling born too soon. Crooked teeth were just one signifier of in-womb nutrition deficiencies though--narrow faces, narrow hips leading to more difficult births, club feet and almost all other birth defects were more common in children born closer than three years.

Price's theory was that pregnancy exhausts a woman's nutrient stores. Nursing a baby further depletes those stores (or slows down the replenishment process). It takes a woman's body several years to replenish and be ready to give everything to a new baby. A baby born only a year or two after a sibling will most likely not be able to receive enough nutrients in the womb to develop properly.

There are many other things that can deplete a woman's biological fitness and make it not wise to have a baby. Children born soon after a woman suffers from a major illness or during a time of famine also showed signs of not getting properly nourished in the womb. This did not mean these babies couldn't survive, it just meant their gene expression was not optimized. 

To put this theory into a real life example: very few Americans today, even the healthiest, will have children with naturally straight teeth. But if any of their children have straight teeth, it the most likely be the couple's first born. This could also be why the first born will have the highest IQ, be the most attractive and the least likely to have a hormonal imbalance. (If a woman's nutrient stores are properly replenished before she gets pregnant again, it is possible for all her children to be attractive with straight teeth and high IQs. Again, this does not mean that babies whose gene expression was not optimized will be stupid and unattractive, it just means that had they been properly nourished in the womb, they would have been even more intelligent and attractive than they are.) I cannot find any examples from people in my life in which this is not the case. Whenever I run into people who look like they have nice, wide mouths and perfectly straight teeth I ask about their mothers' diets before they were born. 100% of the time thus far, the person with the straight-teeth-no-braces had a mom who ate a traditional diet or some strange traditional foods that most people don't eat today or, in one case, fished and ate fish for at least one meal a day every day.

For these reasons, I would never consider having children spaced closer than three years. 

Why did we lose our ancient knowledge and start having more children spaced closer together? The change took place after the middle ages due to religions pressure to not nurse and have large families. Nursing is a natural contraceptive. Native societies nursed their young for 3-6 years. When the church convinced women that nursing was sinful and dirty and babies started being weened either at birth or after a month, infant mortality skyrocketed (thus women had to have more children in order to have one or two survive to adulthood) and women were able to get pregnant again right away. The ancient knowledge, that this would lead to unhealthy offspring, was lost... and crooked teeth, narrow faces, and difficult child-bearing hips became normal.

If you would like to read more about this subject, check out:
Nutrition and Physical Degeneration
Centuries of Childhood: A Social History of Family Life


  1. Great post but FYI, the "my body was designed to X" rhetoric is an implicit suggestion of a maker/creator.

    It's a sinister way that religious authorities have corrupted the English language and it's a difficult linguistic habit to break so I am not surprised you struggle w/ it as I do!

  2. Thanks Taylor, great point. I made a quick fix but I am sure there is a better way to express what I want to express.

  3. I know this is an old post but I've been digging through your blog and this entry touched on something I've been struggling with: when to have children. I'm planning my first pregnancy for 2017-2018, I'll be 27-8. I am already very heath-conscious but want to be as fit and strong as I can for the pregnancy. There's a lot of literature on how egg-quality declines and frequency of various syndromes increases as a woman approaches her mid-late thirties which leads to my question, when is it best to space them closer (to avoid being too old) and is there a way to replenish your body after pregnancy so if you did become pregnant two years later (instead of 3-6) you second born wouldn't suffer? Is pregnancy at 33 a risky choice, regarding DNA?

    I've tried to find information about this elsewhere but the 'post-baby body' is more about Beyonce and less about replenishing iron and strength.

    Love your theories, by the way, so thought-provoking!

  4. Hi A M M E,

    Glad you like my theories! I think having a baby through your 30's is totally fine (hunter gatherer women had babies as late as their 40's and did fine). As long as you are healthy of course and as long as you do it naturally. If you get pregnant with a sick baby, your body will (most likely) miscarry. Miscarriages are great! But today obgyn's try to stop them. So if your obgyn notes that your body is trying to miscarry, she will give you a drug to prevent it. or, worse, she will start you off on the drug (progesterone) "because of your age."

    As long as you decline the drugs, I think it is better to space children properly and have them later than to not space them properly and have them younger.

    I do think the ideal age to have 2 kids is 25 & 31. I have been watching families closely, especially here in Nicaragua, and I think a 6 year spacing is perfect.

    Something my post didn't say that I will add here is that if babies were born too soon they were tossed in the river, that is how seriously hunter-gatherers believed that they would not grow up to be contributing members of the tribe. Likewise with twins. There is no way for two babies grown at the same time to get enough nutrients, so if twins were born both were tossed! I recommend the book nutrition and physical degeneration on this subject!


    1. Roslyn,

      I'm off to read that nutrition book!

      Something I've noticed and I'm not saying this is an absolute truth: twins tend to be shorter. The twins (natural) in my family are four inches shorter than their other 'singleton' siblings.

      I got married at 25 and received a lot of venom from my liberal-leaning, feminist friends and acquaintances for being 'too young', 'your 20s are for exploring and fun'(this was their only objection). I can't imagine the earful I'd get had I gotten married at 23 and pregnant at 25. Remarks aside, I want to have children and have spent a long time working to in order to do so.



    2. Ahhhh! I am so sorry for your friends harassing you! Fascinating about the twins.

      I have to say that I completely disagree with your friends of course. I got to study a lot of marriages while I worked in private homes, and the best marriage I saw was the couple that had been together since they were 18. I asked them if they felt like they missed out on anything, and they responded that the benefits outweigh the cons--They got to "grew up together." They became who they were together. I loved that! My husband and I met when he was 22, and I was 24 and I feel similarly. I can't speak for everyone, but I think our relationship is much stronger for it. We "raised each other" in a way. We formed our dreams and ideas about life together.

      The way I see it is that the "wait" advice is old news. That's what the generation before us did, and it did not work out well for them. Our generation saw that, and skewed younger. With the "pioneer effect" of our education and career goals it is almost impossible for anyone to start a family at what I think is a much better time! (Also in order to have kids younger we would have to not infantaloze kids so much so they actually had a chance to grow up!)

      I think 25 is a great age to get married:) my husband was 25! And it just makes me happy to hear that you have been saving to have kids! What lucky kids! :)