You and your baby will have a deep instinct for closeness and bonding which is driven by your need to nurture and his to survive. “Attachment” is a child’s overwhelming need to be near to a particular person who represents safety and comfort—this is usually, but not always, a parent.

“Learning to ‘let go’ is a challenge that is faced by parents at every developmental milestone as their children begin to separate from them and grow up.”

Once your growing toddler learns who “Mommy,” “Daddy,” and his other main caregivers are, the attachment to those individuals increases and his cries will become targeted more toward them. Your toddler may develop attachment relationships with more than one person and each relationship is unique. It is at this age that anxiety about separation peaks.

Fathers are much more involved in child care today than in previous generations and may be the primary caregiver in the family, and the person the child becomes the most attached to in the early months. Boys, in particular, benefit from having a positive male role model, since as they get older it is important for their sense of identity and developing self-esteem.

Attachment behavior was written about by psychoanalyst John Bowlby (1907–1990). It is a deeply instinctive response and ensures that your toddler gets the attention he needs. It is an important factor in the development of his identity, and a strong motivator for keeping him safe.

Attachment between carer and child represents:

  • Safety—a safe base from which to explore the world.

  • Survival—ensures the proximity of the caregiver and therefore better care.

  • Learning—about personal needs and personal control, as well as the understanding that the way he behaves can have an effect on someone else. It’s important to try not to allow your own need for closeness to overwhelm or inhibit your toddler’s ability to learn his own way and become more self-sufficient.

  • Closeness—provides a model for later relationships and can teach us how to empathize and see situations from another’s perspective. By allowing your toddler the freedom to experiment and learn from new experiences, without judgement and criticism, you will be helping him build self-confidence and self-esteem. Attachment starts as a survival mechanism, but also helps us learn about emotions and intimacy in preparation for relationships in later life. Many children need help in learning to be separate from their trusted person or family as they get older. This is all part of growing up.

A child’s attachment behavior is most likely to show when he is stressed: perhaps when separated from a trusted adult, or because of an overwhelming need for something he wants immediately. A toddler’s brain does not yet know how to deal with time and so does not know how to wait; nor will he understand that when you disappear you may still be nearby and will return. This leads to separation anxiety. The intensity of the separation anxiety and how long it lasts depends on both the child’s need for the parent, and the parent’s need for the child. Every parent–child relationship is different, even within the context of a single family. It depends on the unique mix of the child’s temperament and how the parent responds to it. Every parent was once a child and seeing your own child grow and responding to his vulnerabilities can trigger deep memories of your own experience of childhood, and will affect your style of response . For some parents this can be a challenge.

Natural instincts

Your baby has an automatic reflex that makes him cry when in need of food or comfort, and you are programmed to protect him and respond to his needs.

The parent–child connection

Young toddlers may find it hard to cope when their parent or caregiver is not there. This is because they cannot yet understand that someone or something that is out of view still exists and can reappear. This is not a matter of philosophy! It is simply that the memory systems of the brain are not fully developed. For the same reason, your toddler has no real concept of time and can’t tell the difference between 10 minutes and one hour, or yesterday, today, or tomorrow. He knows only what he can see and what he wants, in the here and now.

Understanding this is important because your child might find separation from you difficult until he has reached a certain level of cognitive development. A baby as young as six months old will catch on to the fact that an object still exists even when it is hidden, but may struggle for much longer to deal with or understand that Mommy and Daddy still exist when they are in another room. A parent’s absence is more stressful than the whereabouts of a hidden toy, and so a baby brain will find it harder to hold onto the concept that Mommy or Daddy will return.

Interestingly, separation anxiety is at its peak at about 15 months and then slowly reduces; this coincides with the development of language, which is linked to the development of memory and reasoning skills. By now your child will have had more experiences of separation, too, and will have begun to learn that Mommy and Daddy always return.

Coping with your own anxieties

Parents feel separation anxiety, too, and it may be you rather than your child who feels the pain of separation most acutely when you have to leave him with a caregiver.

To make the process of leaving him easier, remember:
  • Make sure your toddler feels comfortable and is familiar with his new surroundings before you leave him for the first time.

  • Don’t fuss too much before you go, or he may pick up on your anxiety and become upset.

  • Your child will be more comfortable if you leave him with familiar toys and encourage the caregiver to keep to a routine (but if this is not possible, a change in routine will not be damaging to you or your child).

  • Have enough faith in your parenting to know that your child has the skills to manage and is not going to fall apart without you.

  • If you are a working parent, make a conscious effort to build up your support network of family and other parents, so that you have people you can call on in an emergency, or if you are held up at work. Knowing you have other people to rely on can help to minimize your stress.

  • Even though you may have a busy evening ahead, take some time to reassure and reconnect with your child in a relaxed and unhurried way when you first return to him at the end of the day.

Real life

I had always said I would go back to work after Pippa was born. I was looking forward to having my baby, but it was a personal wish, as well as a financial necessity. However, nothing could have prepared me for the strong feelings of love I have for my baby girl. When she was 12 months old I returned to my full-time job, but I still feel dreadful about it every day. Pippa now spends two days a week with her grandparents and three days with a babysitter. She often cries when I leave her, which wrenches my heart, even though I know it’s normal and she’s perfectly happy and safe.

All the time I feel guilty at leaving her, worried about whether I have done the right thing, and sometimes quite resentful toward our lovely babysitter—simply because she spends so much time with her. I tell myself that Pippa is well looked after, she is not coming to any harm, she is getting used to other people and that she is very well loved. In truth, I think it is harder for me than it is for her. She is getting loads of attention and having a lovely time. I just didn’t realize how hard the adjustment would be. Her father and I try to make up for it by spending as much time playing with her on the weekends as possible. So Pippa gets the best of both worlds, really!

Early baby bonding

During the first year of life a baby moves quite rapidly through different stages of attachment and acceptance of the people around him. In comparison to toddlers, many babies are quite relaxed with new people. Separation anxiety begins later and coincides with the development of language and memory, peaking during months 12-18.

Flanagan, C. (1996)

0-2 monthsAsocial attachmentsBabies respond similarly to both people and things until they are around two months old when they start to recognize faces and voices and will settle more easily with someone who is familiar.
2-7 monthsIndiscriminate attachmentsSmall babies will have some preference for familiar faces, but are generally at ease with new people, too.
7-9 monthsSpecific attachmentsWill have formed a main attachment to their primary caregiver and can be very anxious and distressed around strangers.
9 months +Multiple attachmentsBy nine months will become attached to several familiar and important figures, such as relatives, siblings, and frequent visitors.

Choosing Child Care

“Should I work and pay for child care, or take care of my child myself?” This is the very difficult dilemma faced by thousands of parents with preschool aged children. The fact is that the right to choose to work has fast turned into an economic necessity.

“It is completely natural to want to compensate your child for your absence, but giving her extra treats to make up for the time you are away can be counter-productive in the long-term.”

The long-term ramifications for today’s children, or society as a whole, of being in child care while their parents go to work is the subject of much discussion. The work/child care debate is an emotional issue that will go on and on.

While there is no doubt that children benefit from the constant care of a loving parent, there is no reason why a child should be disadvantaged by being cared for by someone else as well. In fact, there are advantages to getting small children used to the company of adults outside the immediate family, provided they are helped to manage their natural anxiety (see The Bond Between you and your Child).

Your feelings

In reality, it is you as the parent, rather than your child, who may feel an acute sense of separation. It can be hard to return from work to find, for example, that your child has spoken his first word or taken his first steps with the babysitter rather than you. But once you have made the decision to use child care, a sense of pragmatism is essential, coupled with the desire to make time for your children when you are at home, instead.

Choosing a caregiver

A young toddler needs ideally to be with someone who listens to him, notices his needs, responds accordingly, and makes a positive contribution toward shaping his behavior, without trying to take the place of his parents. This is the key to successful child care. You need to feel comfortable with the child care you have chosen, otherwise your child may pick up on your anxiety and become anxious himself.

Decide in advance what your main concerns are for your child and what qualities you want in your caregiver. Make a note of your toddler’s likes and dislikes and the family routine, if you would like it followed. If you are able to call on a relative or friend to care for your child, you should go through the same briefing process as you would if leaving your child with a total stranger, so there can be no room for later misunderstanding. A work child-care center is an ideal scenario for both child and parent, but unfortunately these are still the exception to the rule.

Introducing a caregiver

It can be valuable to make time for your toddler to get used to the new caregiver before you return to work. A child can become overwhelmed easily by a stranger, or even a relative or friend, who wants to hold him or make close facial or eye contact far too soon. You can make sure this doesn’t happen by explaining that you would like to allow time for your child to relax and get used to the new situation at his own pace.

  • Don’t leave the caregiver alone with your child initially. Allow him or her to chatter or interact while your child is close to you. It is too soon for any physical contact at this stage.

  • Let your child lead the first contact with the caregiver. Watch for eye contact or a smile and make sure that your child is comfortable before the caregiver begins to focus on him.

  • Once your child seems interested and comfortable, encourage him to play alongside you while you and the caregiver talk.

  • After a while, encourage the caregiver to play with your child at his level. Watch the body language and eye contact between them—and especially notice how your child is reacting.

  • Once your child is warming toward the caregiver, try retreating a bit, or perhaps leave the room.

  • See what happens. Don’t allow your child to become severely distressed, but don’t fuss unnecessarily. An able caregiver will have lots of effective distraction techniques.

Coping with separation

How a child copes with being separated from you depends on his innate character, and how you cope with leaving him. Some children’s first experience of separation from a parent may coincide with their first experience of being with other children. There is bound to be a period of adjustment, but if the caregiver is responsive and the environment positive, he will probably adjust more quickly than you.

Away from home

Children are very adaptable and if you have found the right caregiver and environment, your child will soon settle into it.

The right environment

Whichever type of child care you have chosen, word-of-mouth recommendations and feedback from other parents can be very helpful. There is also a wealth of professional organizations that can offer advice . Spending some time in new surroundings with your child before leaving him for the first time will make it easier for both of you; and seeing how the other children respond to the caregiver will help you make a judgement about whether the environment is right for your needs. If you know your child is happy, rather than distressed about your return to work, you will be free to focus instead on your career and developing another side of your life.

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