By Dr. George Wootan, M.D.
Author of Take Charge of Your Child’s Health
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I’m going to open up a big can of worms here, one that gets me into as much trouble as my thoughts on weaning: mother-baby separation. Imagine for a moment, that you are at the grocery store with your six-month-old. She starts making hungry noises, and you look down and say reassuringly, “I’ll feed you in half an hour, as soon as we get home.” Will she smile and wait patiently for you to finish you shopping? Absolutely not! As far as your baby is concerned, either there is food now, or there is no food in the world. Right in the middle of the grocery store, famine has struck!
Babies and toddlers, up to the age of about 36 months, have little concept of duration of time. To them, there are only two basic times: now and never. Telling a young toddler that Mommy will be back in an hour, or at 5:00, is essentially the same thing as telling her that Mommy is gone forever, because she has no idea what those times mean.
Let me submit to you that the need for mother is as strong in a baby as the need for food, and that there is no substitute for a securely attached mother. When he’s tired, hurt, or upset, he needs his mother for comfort and security. True, he doesn’t need Mommy all the time, but when he does, he needs her now. If he scrapes his knee, or gets his feelings hurt, he can’t put his need on hold for two hours until Mommy is home, and the babysitter – or even Daddy – just won’t do as well as if Mommy was there.
So, yes, this is what I’m saying: A mother shouldn’t leave her baby for an extended amount of time until about the age of 36 months, when he has developed some concept of time. You’ll know this has begun to happen when he understands what “yesterday,” “tomorrow,” and “this afternoon” mean, and when your toddler voluntarily begins to spend more time playing away from you on his own accord.
Of course, if you know that your child always sleeps during certain times, you can leave her briefly with someone while she naps. If you do this, however, the babysitter should be someone she knows well, as there is no guarantee that she won’t choose this day to alter her schedule and wake up while you’re gone. This could be traumatic for her if the person is someone she casually knows, and doubly so if the babysitter is a stranger. It is important to make every effort to be available to her when she is awake and may need you.
I realize that not separating a baby from his mother for the first 36 months of life may be difficult. Living up to this presupposes that the family is financially secure without the mother’s paycheck, and, unfortunately, this is not a reality for some people. I would not argue that a mother who must work to support her family is doing less than her best for her children by working. However, I believe that many women return to work not out of necessity, but because they (or their spouses) want to maintain the two-income lifestyle to which they’ve become accustomed. These parents need to do a little soul-searching about what they really need and not sacrifice their child’s best interests.
If you must leave your baby for several hours a day, there are some things you can do to try and compensate for the separation. One of these, of course, is nursing until the child weans himself. Another is sharing sleep with your child until he decides he is ready for his own bed. If you have to spend 8 hours away from your baby, make an effort to spend the remaining 16 hours of each day in close physical contact. That extra effort will go a long way toward helping him feel secure an develop a healthy attachment with you.
In our family, we have found that many events that would require leaving our baby or toddler at home are the ones that we don’t particularly mind missing. We also have found that because our children have their needs attended to promptly, they are happy and secure, and we are able to take them to most social gatherings. I don’t mean to suggest that you’ll never encounter any problems, but generally, you’ll find that if you take care of your baby’s immediate needs by holding him, nursing him, and loving him, he’ll be a pleasure to have around, well into the toddler years and beyond.
George Wootan, M.D. is a board-certified family practitioner and medical associate of La Leche League International. He and his wife, Pat, are the parents of eleven children and the grandparents of twenty-one. Dr. Wootan has practiced medicine for 33 years with a focus on pediatric, family, and geriatric care and chronic illness. He speaks nationally on the subject of children’s health, healthy aging, nutrition, wellness and Functional Medicine.