So you need to get away. You need some adult time, girlfriend time, a date night with your spouse — anything that doesn’t involve changing diapers, mediating sibling arguments or buckling kids into car seats. But the thought of Little Jonny pining for you with outstretched arms and big tears streaming down his face is simply too much to handle. So you never go.
I’ve so been there. There were months when I really needed to get away to refuel. The catch-22 was that I didn’t have enough emotional energy to handle my twins’ separation anxiety. So I didn’t leave. Or I left only when they were fast asleep, or if my husband was home. We went months and months between date nights in those early years.
I finally wised up and realized that there are strategies I could use to help alleviate their stress, and if I dug deep enough for the energy to put them into place, we’d all reap big rewards.
You see, living in Texas, we were hundreds of miles away from any family members. So as infants and toddlers, our twins never developed strong attachments to their grandparents simply because they didn’t see them often enough. So we did, and still do, have to rely on babysitters. And it’s our job as parents to help our children learn to trust and feel secure with the caregivers we hire to take care of them.
Separation Anxiety 101
The good news is that separation anxiety in children 6 years and younger is totally normal. In fact, it’s a sign of a healthy caregiver (usually parent) / child relationship. Humans are wired to seek security, and during our young lives, our parents generally provide that. When children are separated from the parents to whom they are attached, their sense of security is threatened — thus, the yelling and screaming. So next time your blood pressure sky rockets when your child is howling as you leave her at the door at preschool, remind yourself that it’s a sign of your healthy relationship.
The onset and duration of separation anxiety varies greatly from child to child. Generally speaking, it rears its ugly head sometime around 8 months, and can last several weeks or months. Then, it resurges, often with a vengeance, around the toddler years: sometime between 12 – 24 months and can last for varying amounts of time depending on the child and the strategies parents use to help both them and their child cope.
Please keep in mind that not one strategy works for all kids, parents or families. But when choosing your methods, be consistent and give them some time. Children’s trust in a new caregiver and their belief in the fact that you really will return takes time to build.
Starting as early as 6 months of age, introduce your infant to blankies, cuddly stuffed animals and other objects. The goal is for your child to eventually choose one as her “lovey” or, in technical terms, transitional object. This is an object (generally something soft or otherwise comforting) that your child uses for a sense of security and comfort. In time, the object itself will help fill the hole created when you leave for work, date night, etc. (Note: Do not leave a soft object like a stuffed animal in your infant’s crib or sleeping place until your child is able to easily roll over, turn her head, and otherwise clear her airway if her face is against the object.)
You can’t force your child to attach to any specific object — that’s totally in her court. If you are anything like me, you’ll buy several blankies hoping that one will trip your child’s trigger. I had ones of different colors, textures, ones that rattled gently, ones with corners that looked like cute animals — you name it, it was an option for Jax. He attached to none of those. Around 18 months old, he finally gravitated toward a hand-me-down stuffed giraffe. He cuddles it close in his crib at night; he covers it up with his blanket, and he shares his paci’s with it. Too. Cute.
New Sitter Trial Run
Plan ahead to introduce a new sitter to your children well before you actually need the sitter. Ask the sitter to come and visit with your children for at least an hour with you present during a “trial run.” The goals of this meeting are: 1) to begin to develop a sense of comfort and trust between your child and the sitter, 2) to view the interaction between the sitter and your child first-hand to validate your decision to hire him or her, and 3) for your child to witness a positive interaction between you and the sitter. If you appear at ease and that you like the sitter, your child will also be more comfortable with him or her.
Use your judgement to determine if you need more than one visit before the actual go-day. Scheduling two, three even four trial-run visits can go a long way toward easing your child’s anxiety when it comes time for you to actually leave them together. Of course, be sure to compensate your sitter for her time.
Make a Photo Book of Important People
Chances are you already have one of these little books in which you place pictures of people who love your child: grandma, grandpa, aunts and uncles usually decorate the pages of these infant/toddler books. Here’s a popular one by Sassy: Who Loves Baby?
I chose to buy a cheap 4×6 photo book in which I placed pictures of friends, family and even familiar places (like preschool, our favorite parks, etc.). When I would hire a new sitter, I’d take her picture and add it to our book. I even included new preschool teachers. We’d look through the book daily to help familiarize the twins with the new faces.
Increase Your Separation Time Gradually
When you’ve decided it’s time to actually leave your new sitter with your little one, start with small increments of time with the goal of increasing the duration with subsequent visits. And I ask my sitter to come about 20 minutes earlier than I actually have to leave. This allows my kids to warm up to the sitter with me there before I have to jet out the door.
I usually start with an hour and work my way up from there. I know, an hour is hardly enough time to run to the grocery store much less rejuvenate your spent energy reserve. But, these baby steps will be worth it in the long run.
Keep in communication with your sitter. It’s best not to return while your child is still very upset as that can send the message that crying brings you back. If possible, wait until your child has at least somewhat settled before you pop through the door.
Let the Sitter Know What Comforts Your Child
Leave your sitter with a list of things to try to comfort your kiddo. Maybe she loves to be sung a particular song or cheers up when taken for a walk around the yard. And go one step further by getting her started on a favorite activity with your sitter before you leave. I’m not one for TV, but Jax loves Thomas the Train, so I have that cued up on Netflix should my sitter need to comfort Jax while we are away. A Babysitter Binder is the perfect place to store this list. See this post: Babysitter to the Rescue, for a downloadable template.
Validate Your Child’s Feelings
While your 2-year old may not have the words to express his feelings to you, you do. Validate your child’s fear by letting him know you understand. Instead of saying, “Now be a big boy. No crying,” say “I know you are sad when daddy and I leave. But we’ll be back when you wake up in the morning.” Remember that his fear is normal. Do not dismiss it or add guilt to it by telling him he shouldn’t be sad, scared, etc.
Tell Your Child What’s Happening
Always tell you child what to expect when leaving him with a sitter. I prefer to tell the younger children no more than 30 minutes before the sitter arrives that they will have a sitter today. Depending on your child and his needs, you may need to begin transitioning your child much sooner.
In short, easy-to-understand language, tell your child 1) you are leaving, 2) that the sitter will take good care of him while you are gone, 3) what fun things your child will do with the sitter (play a game, watch a movie, etc.), 4) and when you will be back (“I’ll be back at dinner time, I’ll see you when you wake up in the morning, etc.) – use a routine part of the day vs. clock time if your child doesn’t tell time.
Don’t Sneak Out
As tempting as it is to sneak out the door when your child is content and not looking, it can harm your cause in the long run. Think about it: If the person you counted on suddenly disappeared when you weren’t looking, you’d feel compelled to keep even closer tabs on him — right? That’s exactly what happens with our kids. Next time, when your kiddo sees that sitter come through the door, you can bet your child will be stuck to you like glue ensuring you don’t escape her grip again. As hard as it is to see your baby upset, tell her what’s happening and give her a proper goodbye.
Make Sure Your Sitter Sticks to Your Household Routines
Routines provide predictable structure that add to your child’s sense of security. So it is important that your sitter stick to these routines while you are away and your little one is struggling with her feelings of safety and trust. Make sure the sitter understands your routines around dinner, bedtime, etc. so she can stick to them. Doing so lets your child know that things are still predicable and enhances her feelings of safety.
Use Books to Talk About What Happens When You Leave
Add books to your library that discuss the issue of mom and dad leaving children with sitters, teachers, etc. and read them often. Doing so serves as a means of discussing these feelings and preparing them for the real thing. Some of my favorites include: Momma Always Comes Home, When Momma Comes Home Tonight, Bye-Bye Time.
Teaching your child to cope with the stress of your leaving can be hard. But remember, just like separation anxiety, learning these coping skills is part of normal development. The effort you put into helping your little one through this transition is well worth it. Soon your child will smile at the sight of your sitter (or at least not bust into tears), and you’ll enjoy your next date night guilt free.
Want to read about how to hire a sitter, what to pay, what info to leave with the sitter and other useful tips that will make leaving the house sans kids easier? Check out Part 1 of this series: Babysitter to the Rescue.
*As always, my posts are a combination of my professional opinions and personal experiences as a mom of three, soon to be four. My writings are not intended to be taken as medical advice. Remember that all children, parents and families are different, and my opinions may not reflect what’s true for you.