My youngest son, who is 12 months old, is very clingy to me. I am a full-time mum, so he is with me more or less all the time. This is particularly during the evening when he will let only me put him to bed. When his father tries to take over, he can become really distressed and calls out for me. As a result, it has always just been easier for me to put him to bed while my husband settles the two older children.
So far that has been fine, but the problem is that now I am due to travel to Europe for a family wedding in June and I am wondering whether he will be able to cope without me, and whether to go. My husband says that I should just go and that he will be able to manage the three children. My husband has to work long hours, but he was planning to take off time to mind the kids for the wedding.
My question is how can I make it easier for my son to accept me not being there for him for two nights? I had hoped that he would become less clingy as he got older but, if anything, he has got a lot worse.
As part of their normal development, and from the age of about six months, babies form attachments to their parents and caregivers, which means they exclusively seek the comfort and security of these people particularly when under stress.
Historically, it was believed that babies formed exclusive attachments to their mothers, but now it is considered a more complex process, with young children forming attachments with a small group of carers that includes fathers, grandparents, childminders and even siblings, depending on who cares for them on a daily basis. There tends to be a hierarchy of the attachment figures, meaning that the young child will seek the comfort of their primary carer first and the others when he or she is not available.
The attachment process is unique to each child and some children can easily spend periods of time away from their attachment figures (secure that they will return soon), while others like your son can be much more clingy for periods of time and find it harder to be cared for by other people.
In your situation, you seem to have the added complication of your son depending on you as a support to help him get to sleep at night – your presence helps him to settle at night, which is one of the key times for children to seek comfort.
It is important to help your son to learn to accept the care and comfort of other people, particularly his father. In fact, it would be of great benefit for him to enjoy being put to bed by his father as then he would have access to the comfort of both his father and his mother, and two close relationships instead of one.
This is likely to be of great benefit to his father also, who might be missing out on having this type of relationship with his son.
In addition, it is also important for you have your own personal time and to attend social events such as your family wedding. I am always recommending to parents that they prioritise their own self-care as well as the care of their children. Indeed, children are always cared for better by parents who have achieved a balance between meeting their own personal needs and those of their children.
The good news is that there are simple steps you can take to help your son develop his attachment with his father and you have plenty of time between now and the wedding to make this transition in a gradual and gentle way.
The first step is to start with increasing the time your son spends being cared for by his father, building on the periods that already go well.
When during the day or evening does his father care for him exclusively even for a short period? Even if there aren’t currently such times, he could start by setting these up. For example, if he works long hours, could he take over looking after your son early in the morning, even for a short period, before he goes to work, if your baby is an early riser?
Alternatively, make sure there are times like this during the weekend. For example, your husband could take the baby out on a trip to the park, or give the baby a bath or just sit and play with him for a period. As the baby is likely to seek you out if you are there, it is best to set these up as exclusive one-to-one times between father and son.
Make it easier at first by keeping the first times short, or by picking a time when your baby is in good form and liable to enjoy playing with his father.
Once there are regular one-to-one times between father and baby during the day, then you are ready to hand over the bedtime routine. To make this easy, you might want to first make a list of all the steps of the routine and all your son’s preferences before he goes asleep so his father can copy this.
Alternatively, if possible, the two of you could put the baby to bed the first time or at least your husband could be close by, so he sees exactly what happens.
Then when you are ready, you can swap roles and your husband put the baby to bed and you take over settling the older children. If your baby does call out for you, resist the temptation to immediately go in and take over, and instead take a step back and support your husband managing this and settling his son by himself.
There may be some hiccups but remember once your husband manages to do this, this is an achievement for everyone. Sharing parenting in this way is of great benefit to you, your husband, your baby and your older children.
Dr. John Sharry, Irish Times Newspaper, March 2012. John writes in the Irish Times Health+ every Tuesday.