Child prefers caregiver

Question: My daughter is 11 months old. I went back to work 2 months ago. For the past few weeks she has been reaching for the babysitter when I drop her off and pick her up. If that’s not bad enough, she’s started to reach for other adults when I am around and refuses to come to me. This has me very upset. Am I not spending enough time with her? What am I doing wrong? Any information you can give me will be greatly appreciated.
– Debbie

Answer: We cannot control the timing the life events and the particular stages in child development because stages do not occur according to a set timetable. At 11 months old, your daughter is experiencing the peak of separation issues as well as the emotional and cognitive aspects of object permanence. In other words, she is emotionally and intellectually investigating what is happening to her, to the people she loves, and to familiar things when people/things disappear and reappear. Before this time in her life, she literally believed that when people/things were out-of-sight, they were gone without any expectation of them returning. Children at this stage need on going confirmation that they are safe, loved, and protected. They need to know there will be responsive adults meeting their needs, reflecting their emotional states, and establishing control over the things they are too helpless to control. By having a reliable caregiver, you are providing your daughter with that experience. Because these separation issues intensified while in the sitter’s care, she has grown favorably attached to the sitter. Reaching for the sitter is her way of communicating that bond. Dads, too, frequently experience this bit of “rejection” at this stage but it does mean they are not loved and loving.

It is possible that she is also a bit angry with you for leaving her and is expressing that by refusing to come to you. From her perspective, you can understand that this is a big transition for her. The hardest job of motherhood is facing GUILT! No one experiences guilt like a mother. Breathe deep, feel your sadness at not being perfect (which was never really an option anyway), and use this as just another check-and-balance along the parenting journey. I would examine the transitions from mom to caregiver and vice versa and look for special mommy rituals that through repetition will become natural highlights in your daughter’s day.

Try to plan drop-off and pick-up so you have time to sit with the sitter, preferably on the floor, giving your daughter transition time overlapping mom and caregiver. Let your daughter lead the play with both of you cheering her and extending the play. I would suggest no less than 15 minutes of play before you announce “time for mommy to go to work.” Establish a sweet good-bye ritual that you can repeat each day, invent a good-bye mommy song (“hi ho hi ho. It’s off to work I go” or “where is mommy. she’s at work”), blow kisses, or wave to your daughter at the window. Make your exit positive and guilt-free so your daughter knows she doesn’t have to worry about being left. When you return, again stay at least 15 minutes in unhurried play and let the sitter share the events of the day (keep it light – avoid talking about your daughter’s transition in her presence).

The good news is that things should return to normal in a few months when the intensity of the separation issues subsides. Rest assured that it is possible for working parents to have happy, well-adjusted children.

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