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The Informed Parent

The Clinging Daycare Child

by Sandra Smith, Ph.D.
Published on Jan. 14, 2002

Today’s parenting has taken a very abrupt turn from days of yore. So many of our infants/preschoolers are placed in daycare programs for much of their waking hours. A case in point was the worried mom who came to see me the other day.

It seemed that this mom was questioning the affection of her 13-month-old daughter who spent at least ten hours per day in the home of the daycare provider. Whenever Mom appeared to retrieve the infant, the baby would dramatically cling to the provider. A great fuss would ensue, causing Mom to believe that the baby was no longer “her child”. I was asked if this behavior was normal.

First of all, let us consider the difficulty the baby demonstrates when asked to separate from the individual who has cared for her during the majority of her waking hours. This behavior is indeed “normal”. In fact, one should realize that it is a very positive sign. It suggests that the baby feels loved and well cared for while in the presence of her daycare worker. In addition, many babies “save up” their most intense reactivity for the moment when the beloved parent resurfaces to retrieve them from daycare. Babies often and pointedly turn away from their parent at the moment of retrieval, almost as if to say that they have saved up their most intense feelings for the one they trust the most. This intense reaction may be necessary for the child to reunite with the parent.

However, this reassurance did not diminish the feelings Mom experienced as a result. Here is a quote from Brazelton (TOUCHPOINTS), about a mother who must leave her child in daycare:

“Leaving my baby for someone else to take care of is the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do. When I look back at her in another woman’s arms, I can hardly bear it. It is as if I’m leaving part of myself. I’m not sure I can do it day after day.”

This mother has eloquently stated what I believe most of us feel when we place our children in daycare to return to work. In addition, and perhaps most importantly, the way this mother expresses her feelings makes it clear that the pain of separation is HERS. Given good care, most babies adapt quickly--it is the parent(s) who experiences more difficulty.

Next week we will address these guilt feelings and express ways to handle them.

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