Q. My four-month-old daughter is making strange. I understand this is quite early as it is usually six to nine months. She is a happy little one as long as I am in sight or if she’s on my knee. She particularly gets very upset when anyone else changes her nappy: is this because she expects to see me? It is very upsetting to watch as she is normally the happiest little person, but I admit this is in the safe environment of her own home and with me there. We have been together 24/7 since she was born as I am feeding her, so this may be the problem, but I know friends who have had children too and they have not made strange. What can I do to help her without causing upset? We go out most days, but maybe I need to leave her a little bit without me, but it seems so cruel. I have to go back to work in the New Year and I am worried that she will be upset, especially with me .
A. A key part of a baby’s emotional development is learning to bond with or form an attachment to their parents or caregivers. This is thought to be a very important process that has implications for the child’s sense of security as they grow up and even how they form family relationships as an adult.
Securely attached children are thought to be more confident growing up and better able to form reciprocal loving relationships as adults. The process of attachment starts at a young age and young babies will begin to form attachments to any adult who is sensitive to their needs and responsive to them in social interactions (smiling, cooing warmly responding, etc).
At the age of about four to six months, a baby begins to discriminate between caregivers and know whether it is their parent or another adult who is caring for them.
At this age, it is normal for babies to display separation anxiety or to “make strange” and to seek out the security of their familiar career. The fact that your daughter is making strange is a sign she recognises you as her main carer and that she has formed a healthy attachment to you, (though this has started at a slightly younger age than average).
Separation anxiety varies in degree for children and for some it can last until two years of age or beyond, but gradually as children become older they become secure with a wider range of carers.
Originally, it was thought that babies can only attach to one carer such as their mother and that there was a critical period for it to happen securely (for example, it had to happen before six months). Recent research has shown, however, that it is a much more complicated affair. For example, babies and young children can attach to fathers equally as well as mothers or indeed to grandparents or even older siblings. In general, babies can attach to any adult who is responsive and consistently cares for them, and though the early months are important, babies can attach to caring adults when older.
In addition, it has been shown that young children can have multiple attachments to a small group of people though usually this is in a hierarchy of preference. For example, the child may seek out the mother first, but if she is not present, then the father, and if he is not present, then the grandparent or the childminder if he/she has warm responsive relationship with this person.
To help your baby be comfortable with other adults and carers, the key is to do this gradually. It is good if the other person can spend lots of time to get to know your baby and gradually learn to understand and respond to their needs. This can work best if it starts with you present. For example, you might first just chat with the other person with your baby in your arms (giving her a chance to watch and get used to the other person).
Then the other person might interact with your baby, while you still hold her securely in your arms. If this is going well, then you could move to the other person holding the baby with you nearby and then with you being a little bit away and finally in the next room. The key is taking lots of time and being under no pressure as well as going slowly at your baby’s pace. For example, changing a nappy is generally a stressful event for babies and they naturally look for their familiar carer at this time.
So in handing over to another person, you might start with you both being there and sharing the task. You can also help another person care for your baby by making sure they know her preferences (for example, toys and comforters) as well as her communications (how you know she is tired, etc) and her routine (when/ where she likes to eat) and so on.
You also mention that you are going back to work in a few months and this is an understandable worry. To help you and your baby prepare, make sure to think through in advance your childcare arrangements so you have as much time to prepare as possible. Childcare is best delivered by someone who knows your baby well and who is well tuned into her.
Depending on your circumstances, you might have more options than you initially think. For example, you might have access to a grandparent who knows your baby well or a well-trusted childminder. Or if you or your baby’s father have flexibility in your work hours, perhaps you could share a lot of the childcare between you and reduce the need for outside care while your baby is young. Or perhaps you could delay your return to work or start part-time for an initial period, so you can phase in the childcare gradually. These are options to consider so you can feel secure in how your baby is being cared for when you return to work.
Dr. John Sharry, Irish Times, December 2010. John writes in The Irish Times Health+ every Tuesday.