As Susan drops Nathan off at the church nursery, the 6-month-old reaches for her and bursts into tears. He used to coo while being rocked by nursery volunteers. Now he acts terrified. Should Susan let Nathan cry it out, or do his cries represent a legitimate need?
Symptoms of separation anxiety are a healthy sign of parent-infant attachment. "It's as if the baby were saying to the stranger, 'I really know the person I love best?and it's not you,'" writes Dr. Nancy Balaban in Learning to Say Goodbye.
When you're walking away from a screaming baby, it helps to know the crying is normal and that it will fade over time. Dr. John Bowlby, who did groundbreaking work on the experience of separation in infants, describes attachment as a condition to be cherished, and dependency as a condition to be avoided.
So how does a parent foster attachment while easing babyhood dependence? Here are three helpful ideas.
- Begin with brief separations?30 to 45 minutes in length. Rather than both you and your spouse leaving, have one parent or a familiar friend or relative stay with your baby.
- When you leave, tell your baby why you're going and when you'll return. She will learn that goodbyes are only temporary and that she can rely on you to return. Avoid long, drawn-out exits. Instead, be confident in your need for a break and the benefit your baby will receive in learning that you're dependable.
- Until your baby outgrows this phase, accept his need to express displeasure at your departures, and take him with you whenever you can. Keeping your sense of perspective?and humor?will help. Know that your presence matters to this little person, who loves you more than anyone else.
When a deep parent-child attachment exists, it's more likely that the parent will want to help the child develop his matchless abilities and attributes. In his book On Becoming a Family, pediatrician T. Berry Brazelton observes, "The purest sign of attachment is the ability to detach at appropriate stages in the child's development. ? If he is overwhelmed even by the most caring parents, opportunities for testing out capacities in himself may be missed."
In just four years, a child moves from womb to cradle to crib to twin bed. The ability to detach is something each child can learn with a parent's loving care and affirmation. With time and patience, you'll find that your baby's attachment will form the secure base from which she becomes better acquainted with the world around her.
Mother, childbirth educator and author
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