Q: I have a baby son who is 11 months old. He can be very clingy with me and reject his dad, especially when he is going to sleep at night. He always insists that I put him to bed and if his father tries to do this, he screams and shouts until I come up to him. It is becoming a bit of a problem, because I need to go out some evenings and my husband can feel bit rejected.
I have also discovered that I am pregnant with our second child, which is great news but it also makes me think that I have to help my son be more independent of me before his brother or sister arrives. Both my husband and I thought he might grow out of it as he got older, but in fact it has become worse in the past few weeks and he can throw a big tantrum if his dad tries to put him to bed, especially if he knows I am downstairs and I won’t come up.
Generally, he is fine with his father and they have great fun together. I went back to work part-time two months ago and I don’t know if this is anything to do with it. My sister looks after him when I am at work, for three or four hours a day, and that seems to be going fine. My husband has a busy job that involves a lot of travel, but he is at home as much as he can. Should we insist my husband puts him to bed sometimes or wait for him to grow out of it?
A: It is very normal and healthy that babies and young children develop a special attachment to their mother or to the adult who cares for them most of the time. This means that when under stress they will always first seek out this person for comfort and reassurance. In addition, in your situation, your son has developed a dependency on your support to help him get to sleep: your presence helps him to settle at night, which is one of the key times for children to seek comfort.
Attachment in young children
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 daily.
Indeed, with fathers now much more involved in the care of young children it is common for children to develop an equal attachment to fathers and mothers and, in some situations, a primary attachment to the father. There tends to be a hierarchy of the attachment figures, meaning that the young child will seek the comfort of their primary carer – usually their mother – first, and then the others when their mother is not available.
Supporting his relationship with his father
While children might have developed a special attachment to one parent, it is also important to help them develop attachments to the other parent (and the other adults who care for them daily).
In fact it would be of great benefit for your son 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 also likely to be of great benefit to his father, who might be missing out on having this type of relationship with his son.
In addition, if your husband is able to put your son to bed, this will free up your time. I am always recommending to parents that they prioritise their own self-care and personal times 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.
Helping your son accept care
Start with increasing the times your son spends being cared for by his father, building on the times that already go well. At what time during the day or evening does his father care for him exclusively, even for a short period? Even if there aren’t such times at the moment, 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 before he goes to work?
The key is to make sure there are frequent exclusive, one-to-one, father-son times when Dad is responsible for all the caring. This will work wonders for their relationship and for your husband’s confidence as a parent.
Gradually hand over the bedtime routine
Take time to support your husband taking over the bedtime routine. To make this easy, make a decision to do it together a few times so your husband can observe the specific steps of the routine and all your son’s specific preferences as he goes to sleep.
Then, when you are ready, back off and let your husband put your son to bed by himself. If your son does call out for you, resist the temptation to go in and take over immediately; instead, take a step back and support your husband in managing this and settling his son by himself. In fact it might be best if you go out at these times and let your husband manage this himself.
A key breakthrough will be when your husband can soothe and manage his son’s distress by himself and then support him getting to sleep. There may be some hiccups but remember once your husband manages to do this, this is an achievement for everyone.
Sharing parenting is of great benefit not only to you and your husband, but also to your son and your new baby when he or she is born.
Dr. John Sharry, Irish Times Newspaper, November 2014. John writes in The Irish Times Health+Family every Tuesday.