Friday, July 30, 2010

Mother-baby inseparability

It didn't occur to me until recently how unusual or counter-cultural my commitment to staying near my baby at all times might be. Even stay-at-home moms normally hire a babysitter at least sometimes. My mother didn't, not at this age. When Joseph was maybe six to nine months, she started leaving him with me (a very familiar and trusted person) for very short periods of time (generally an hour or less). That seemed pretty normal to me. After all, he didn't like being left, even under these relatively pleasant circumstances, so it made sense most of the time for him to go along with mom.

Some of us form our parenting ideas to be the opposite of how we were raised. Not me -- I really like the way I was raised; I think I turned out okay; and when I saw my mom raising my younger siblings, her choices made perfect sense to me. I'm a bit stricter on discipline, generally (though we'll see how I manage with my own kid), and there are a few other minor things I'm doing or plan to do differently, but 90% of my parenting philosophy is just like my mom's. I'm very grateful to her for exposing me to so much baby knowledge when I was growing up.

Anyway. I recently was offered a job, out of the blue, by the school I used to work for. It's just one class a day. But I absolutely refuse to leave my baby with a sitter (supposing I could afford one, which I can't) even for that short amount of time. But the school encouraged me to bring the baby along, and so I decided to accept. (Fingers crossed that he adapts well! I think he will, because it's not his first time in a classroom -- I spent most of my pregnancy with him in one!) Taking baby with me wherever I go, making him a part of whatever I do, is how I raise him and want to continue raising him.

However, some people might object to this method. I was prepared for people to say, "You need time to yourself. You and your husband need to 'get away' sometimes." The answers to that are fairly simple: baby has to sleep sometime. We're lucky in that he sleeps a lot. So I have "me" time during his naps, and we have "us" time after he goes to bed at night. Not to mention that I enjoy my time with him while he is awake, and we both love to play with him together. He comes with us to restaurants, to church, on walks, and almost always behaves well. I don't think a marriage will wither and fall apart if our "date nights" are spent in our own living room or at the dining room table. There's nothing magic about being out of the house with the baby nowhere around. And we're both happy with our current situation.

What I wasn't prepared for was the objection that my baby won't be independent if I never leave him. Partly, I'm just not that concerned about independence. Most people nowadays are too independent rather than not enough -- they know how to get by on their own, but they don't know how to form close relationships with others. But of course there could definitely be a problem if a child never developed any independence at all.

First off, we need to figure out how much independence is even appropriate for any given age. I think it's fair to say that a baby shouldn't be more emotionally independent than he is physically independent. That's a natural part of baby development anyway: at an age where a baby shouldn't be left alone, he is terrified of being left alone. If he can't feed himself, if he can't go to the bathroom by himself, if he can't climb into his crib and take a snooze when he's tired, naturally he doesn't want to be by himself. His instincts are telling him that he isn't safe on his own, he's safe with mom and dad who feed him, change his diaper, and put him to bed.

We know, as grownups, that Stacey the babysitter also knows how to feed, change, and put down the baby. But the baby doesn't know that. Stacey the babysitter could be an axe murderer for all he knows. He might even warm up to her while his parents are still there -- but the second they leave the room, he starts to scream. The people who provide for him are GONE. Instinct tells him to scream in the most heartrending tone he can, because this will bring his parents back and he will be safe again.

Until the second year, a baby does not understand the concept of "object permanence," that a thing or person still exists when not in sight. He can't call up a mental picture of the person. All he knows is that he has been abandoned. He also has no sense of time; in fact, he doesn't develop this until about the age of three. So to him, an hour-long "date night" might as well be forever. Mom and Dad can tell him, till they're blue in the face, "We'll be back in an hour," but they could be saying "We'll be back next year" for all he understands. He might be okay for five minutes or so, but when five minutes has passed, he suddenly realizes, "I've been waiting forever and they're still not back! They are never coming back!" So we ought to look on them with compassion when they do their brokenhearted separation anxiety cry: that's the cry of someone who's lost his parents and will never see them again. When the parents finally come into the room, he clings to them like glue and will not let them out of his sight for the rest of the day. He's afraid they'll sneak off again and do their disappearing act.

One would think that babies eventually would learn that when parents go away, they come back. But they don't figure this out until their brain is ready to learn this. The only thing that might make them okay with being left would be to make them love and trust the babysitter with the same sort of attachment they have to their parents. Sometimes babies replace their mom with a babysitter in their mind, especially when they are in daycare all day, and will cry on leaving the babysitter.

That's just horrible to me. If my baby needs someone he loves and trusts around, well, here I am! Made-to-order! I didn't have a child so that someone else could be my child's mother for me.

But what about when baby is neurologically ready for separation? Will the way I've raised him prevent him from making this step calmly? Here's Dr. Sears on the issue, from The Baby Book:

"In a classic study, called the strange-situations experiment, researchers studied two groups of infants (labeled "securely attached" and "insecurely attached") during an unfamiliar play situation. The most securely attached infants . . . actually showed less anxiety when separated from their mothers to explore toys in the same room. They periodically checked in with the mother for reassurance that it was OK to explore. The mother seemed to add energy to the infant's explorations. Since the infant did not need to waste effort worrying about whether she was there, he could use that energy for exploring.

"When going from oneness to separateness, the securely attached baby establishes a balance between his desire to explore and his continued need for the feeling of security provided by a trusted caregiver. When a novel toy or a stranger upsets the balance, or mother leaves and thus reduces baby's sense of security, baby feels compelled to reestablish the original equilibrium. The consistent availability of a trusted caregiver provides needed reassurance and promotes independence, confidence, and trust, leading to an important milestone by the end of the first year -- the ability to play alone."

So, keeping baby close ("attached" as Sears puts it) actually helps a baby develop independence. And that makes sense, if you understand how a baby's brain works. If he is assured of his own safety, he won't mind moving forward. But if he thinks Mom won't be around when he needs her -- well, it's no wonder he panics.

I didn't do a lot of science to make my own decision, though. I just knew that babies cry when their moms leave, so I won't leave. A baby's cry might seem like an attempt an manipulation, or a misguided notion that something's wrong when we, the grownups, know baby's fine. But in fact, babies cry because of deeply-ingrained instincts which tell them something's not right. The more we study about babies, the more we realize that each time they cry, it is for something that they actually need. If the cavemen had put their babies on a strict schedule and ignored them when they cried, our species would have died out a long time ago.

A note on inseparability and breastfeeding: It used to be easy to explain to people why I wouldn't leave the baby -- because I'm nursing him! No one else can feed him, so I have to be there. But nowadays, that's no longer true. I could, theoretically, use an uncomfortable and expensive pump to get the milk out, and then a plastic bottle to get the milk into the baby. Many do this. However, the less mother and baby are together, the more prolactin (the milk-producing and nurturing hormone) goes down. The nursing relationship goes so much better when mom and baby are together all the time, and touching much of the time. Yet another way that our biological systems expect us to do what is best for us anyway. (Also, Marko won't take a bottle anyway. I never really pushed it in the first place, but at this age he's unlikely to start now. That's fine with me -- it's much better for his teeth if he goes straight to cups when he's older.)

So -- any feedback? I'm curious to hear from parents with kids older than mine. At what age did you leave your baby with a sitter, and how did he take it?


Luschka said...

This is really interesting... I am facing this with my (tomorrow) 10 month old... she's just getting that seperation thing going on. If I leave the room, she screams, even though she's perfectly capable of, and sometimes does follow me. I'm trying to figure a way around it still. I'm totally not at the leaving her stage though. I've left her with my sister, who adores her and she adores back, for four hours once, and left her with my husband for about 7 hours once, but it was tough and after each she was so clingy I couldn't put her down!

Interesting write. Thank you for the insights!

Fidelio said...

Every baby is different, I think. For example, no matter what the experts say, to decide that no child develops any kind notion of object permanence until 24 months old is just silly. V knows not only that when I cover a toy with a blanket that it is still underneath there, but also that a toy I take from him and return to its basket in the next room is there--and will go get it. He also happily returns to the place he found a forbidden object and will look for it among other, non-forbidden, objects until he finds it.

Whether or not this applies to people is harder to say. Even if it didn't, though, there is always the fact that babies are perfectly able to have and express preferences! He prefers me on some days! He prefers my mom on other days. (Usually, he prefers the person feeding him ice cream. This could be my brother's co-worker from probation court. I have not got a picky kid.)

I think the most important thing is that mothers not decide that they are "entitled" to time away from their baby. That's selfish. While for some women it really does help to have a few minutes, or even hours, without baby attached, I don't think you should ever decide you have a "right" to be without your baby. Maybe you deserve help, or you deserve kind words and appreciation for your doing a very hard job, but no one owes a mother time away from her baby.

Finally, while it is silly to decide an attached baby will be an attached teenager, early-onset attachment does set up tough times in early childhood, for better or for worse. My sister-in-law's kids are so terribly attached and clingy that they won't go to anyone but her--not even their dad! This is troublesome for her, frustrating for those who want to help, and upsetting to her older (but still young) children. But, because she doesn't even encourage her children to go to others, or even leave them for a few minutes and then come back to assure them, they are getting to be two, three, even four years old before they will accept any adult other than mommy.

Sheila said...

I definitely agree that no mother should claim a "right" to be away from her baby. That's just kind of part of the mom deal -- you might not be able to go to the bathroom with the door shut for awhile!

I'm not sure, though, how necessary it is to try to train babies to go to others. I do think that it's important for Marko to go to his dad and to be comfortable with him and not just me. I wouldn't push this if it made him really upset, but luckily it doesn't--he's a daddy's boy. However, I don't see a problem with keeping my baby with me if he'd rather not go to someone he doesn't know. So far he really doesn't care much unless he's really tired or grumpy, but if he did, I'd just figure he wasn't ready for it. Even if he was three or four.

I had one student who had separation anxiety in the first grade! But I didn't see it as a big problem; she just wasn't really ready to face being without her mom just yet. The mom offered to stay around for awhile, and I considered that a really great solution. It wasn't long before my little student was comfortable in the new environment and the mom could go home. I think it would have been wrong to make the little girl feel guilty for wanting her mom, to embarrass her, or to force a separation she wasn't ready for.

Anonymous said...

I have loved the Baby 411 book by Denise Fields and Dr. Ari Brown. If you enjoy reading baby books, that's my favorite of the ones I've read.

I have read in this book as well as a few others that object permanents actually hits between 8 and 12 months.

Unknown said...

I just found this, and it is so nice to see an opinion similar to my own. I couldn't imagine leaving my little guy with a sitter. The closest he's ever come to being left with anyone was my sister-in-law keeping an eye on him while he napped so I could run to the post office a block away. I wanted to baby-wear so he could nurse whenever he wanted, but he was born too big for most every sling or wrap, other than the Moby stile ones, which he hated.

When we were in the hospital, he slept on my chest as often as I could get away with it. (The hospital had rooming in, but the nurses would put him in his bassinet if they saw him sleeping on my chest.) When we got home, he slept on my chest all the time. I had to have a c-section, so getting up to get him when he cried was a slow and painful process. Sleeping together just seemed like the best solution.

After I was better healed, which was about 8 weeks, I started to put him down for long periods of sleep, but he napped in my arms every chance we got.

He's six months old, now, and he never gets upset when I leave the room, unless I'm gone for more than five minutes or so. Even if I go past his comfort level, he usually starts yelling first before he cries. We do a call and answer back and forth for a while from different rooms, and that extends his ability to be out of visibility.

He's actually started insisting that I put him down for naps, which makes me incredibly sad. Until recently, I always snuggled him for his morning nap. It was a perfect opportunity for me to drink a leisurely cup of coffee, read a little in my book, and just be quietly amazed by how beautiful he is. I am actually a bit heartbroken that he won't sleep in my arms anymore. He wants to talk, play, and interact, instead of settling down for a snooze.

I don't want any more kids. I want the one I have to stop growing so blamed fast and stay my baby guy forever, but I don't want a new one. A different baby probably won't be as wonderful as he is, and I'd have to figure out how to split my time between two. I'd have to survive the first few months of sleep deprivation, depression, and psychosis with a newborn and a little guy. No thanks! But if I DO have to do it all again, I intend to do it as close to the same as I can. I think that attachment is the reason why my littlest guy has been a "good" baby and only really cries when he needs something. He knows he's going to be taken care of.

My experiences with unattached babies is the reason I never wanted any. They cry so much, and seem to constantly needy about everything. It's nerve wracking and stressful. People told me that I was "spoiling" my baby by holding him so much, responding quickly to his cries, and keeping him with me all the time. But then they have to admit, after interacting with him for any length of time, or seeing him in what could be a stressful situation to an infant, that he's really a very well-adjusted little guy who doesn't get upset by very much at all.

Sorry for the long post. It's just everything you said rings completely true with my experiences, and it's wonderful to see someone else saying that it's not spoiling, but makes for healthy happy babies.

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