By Tracy G. Cassels
One of the hardest things a parent can do is leave their baby in the hands of another. Even when that other is a family member. Passing off your baby for any reason can be difficult, and when that time frame has to be extended (like for work), it can be even harder. Part of that comes from the fact that it is quite common to hear of parents telling awful stories of their babies screaming for them as they left. The return at the end to find out their baby screamed for hours until finally stopping. Caregivers will reassure them that it will pass, but for many, we worry about what is happening to the trust between our children and ourselves. Some children will adapt quite readily with little to no problems, but some struggle and often we get a sense of this (as parents) well before we’re about to leave our children for extended periods. This can cause a lot of stress for us and for our children.
What can we do? Here I’m going to provide four steps that parents can take to help babies transition into someone else’s care for any extended period.
Step #1: Shared Exposure
One of the most important steps to making your child comfortable is ensuring there is shared exposure between the caregiver, yourself, and your infant. As this person becomes a stable presence in your child’s life, s/he is more likely to feel comfortable with them when you aren’t around. Of course, the time it can take for this to happen varies by child, so the sooner you can start with that, the better. Feedings are one of the ways in which you can help this transition, especially if the caregiver will be feeding your child. If you are nursing but will be expressing, while you are there you can see how your child takes to the other caregiver actually doing a feed (by cup or bottle), even if you need to start with you holding your child and the caregiver doing the feeding (or vice versa). Other things that help: having the caregiver there while you change your child and eventually having them do the change while you’re present, having the caregiver hold your baby while you’re there for as long as your child will allow, and letting the caregiver try to soothe your infant for a minute before returning your child to you while you’re there offering vocal support.
Step #2: Short Leaves Within Earshot
The next step is to try to transition away for short periods where you remain in earshot of your baby while explaining to your child that you are just going to the other room and you’ll be right back. You want to gradually build this time up, but remain responsive to your child’s cries for you. Start with as little as five minutes (and working in shorter intervals if needed) and try to leave the caregiver (who your child is hopefully comfortable with by now) and your baby together while you leave the room. If at any point your child cries for you, return and comfort your child and wait a while (at least half an hour) before attempting to separate again. You can increase the intervals in times that feel comfortable for you and your child, but I would recommend going up no more than 5 minutes at any given day.
Additionally, you’ll want to build up the time it takes for you to come back if your child gets upset. At first you should return immediately. Your child needs to build up the knowledge that you will return and you are there for him/her. However, as you’re extending your time away, you can start to wait one minute to see if the new caregiver can offer comfort during this time away. You don’t, however, want to leave more than a few minutes before returning as the negative experience with the caregiver can make the process of bonding between them much harder. One recommendation is to chart the times and keep track of how long you can take away in the house. Note that you may see some ups and downs in this as your child adapts – don’t fret. Just because your child was fine for 10 minutes one day and then 5 the next doesn’t mean you aren’t making progress, it’s a bump in the road, that’s all.
Step #3: Short Leaves Outside
Once you can go 30 minutes without your child calling for you inside, you should start to take leaves (or have your child and caregiver takes leaves if it’s a nanny/family member at home situation) outside. This means you may not be able to return immediately if your child is upset. Explain this to him/her. It doesn’t matter how young, if you get in the habit of explaining these things early, it will help serve you later on, and if your child is old enough to understand even partially, you’re helping. Some children will do better being in a different environment with a new caregiver while some will prefer the same environment (i.e., home). You’ll have to see how your child does and make arrangements that fit with his/her needs in that regard if that is a possibility.
Once again you want to build up with this, but starting at 30 minutes (where you left off in the inside case) and going up. This allows the caregiver time to work towards calming your child if s/he becomes slightly upset. I would strongly recommend that you have a phone on your or way to reach you. If your child becomes hysterical, it’s best to head to him/her straightaway – let the new caregiver put you on the phone with baby to explain you’re coming right away. If this happens, don’t go out again that day, save it for the next day, but remain with the caregiver for an extended period after, letting your child calm down and become reassured in the caregiver’s presence. Again, you may have periods of up and down, but the best thing you can do for your child’s sense of security and anxiety is respond when they need you. You’ll want to build this up to around half the time you’ll be gone for work before moving on to Step 4.
Step #4: Long Leaves But Ability to Return Quickly
Once you can go half the day with few problems, you can try to double that for the full day. However, the caveat here is that you return quickly if something goes wrong. Make sure you aren’t an hour away, but rather 10 minutes away (or so) so that the caregiver can reach you should your child become upset. The key at this stage is to make sure you can be responsively quickly to your child during these long absences. Eventually you won’t be able to regularly do this so you need to build up that sense of security in your child at this stage. Additionally, your child will learn that the caregiver is willing and able to get mom or dad when absolutely necessary which can help build trust between the two of them. But at the end of this stage (which may not take long or may take a week or so), your child should feel secure and confident with their new caregiver and secure and confident that you as a parent are still there for them and can be there when they absolutely need you.
The main point during this transition is to follow your child’s lead with respect to offering comfort and to avoid stepping them too far out of their comfort zone. They will already be forced to take a step away from what is most comforting for them, which is normal (after all, that’s what developing any skill involves), but going too far out of that zone too quickly can be traumatic. Allowing the child to take the steps needed towards being comfortable in a different environment can go a long way towards making the caregiving situation optimal for everyone.
I will reiterate here that I realize this isn’t possible all the time. Or even necessary. Some children simply adapt much faster than others and will take a few days to get used to someone new. Great! This is for those children that aren’t there. However, the problem of it being possible is the larger issue. Daycares often don’t want parents hanging out and many have the erroneous belief that children will settle quickly are fine, but we know that’s not actually the case with many children showing increased stress responses in daycare environments for extended periods, even after they have stopped crying. Notably children with secure attachments don’t show these stress responses when a parent is present during the transition periods, but does show them once the parent has to leave (in these studies it was 3 days of transition). This is why the longer transition period can help. If you can, search for a daycare that can provide this or a nanny who can offer this type of transition if needed.
The other problem is that many families simply don’t have the time to employ these four steps as they do take an extended period of time. This is predominantly an issue in the US where leaves can be as short as 6 weeks (or shorter). There’s just no time to bond and then transition. In some ways, children this young will adapt to other caregivers very quickly and the impetus thus becomes finding a great caregiver. The vast majority of daycares in the US are not good, sadly, and will not provide the type of one-on-one attention young infants need. The other side to this is to fight for longer leaves, something you can read more about here.
Regardless of your situation, the most important thing is to find a caregiver you trust and who treats your child with love and respect. That will most likely mean having to call you during the early stages, but that is part of what transition is and helping your child to know you are there when needed. There are excellent caregivers out there, they just may take a bit of looking! Good luck!
 Ahnert L, Gunnar MR, Lamb ME, Barthel M. Transition to child care: associations with infant-mother attachment, infant negative emotion, and cortisol elevations. Child Development 2004; 75: 639-650.
 Watamura SE, Donzella B, Alwin J, Gunnar MR. Morning-to-afternoon increases in cortisol concentrations for infants and toddlers at child care: age differences and behavioral correlates. Child Development 2003; 74: 1006-1020.