At some point in a child’s life, his or her parents will have to be away from home. Parents often call us with sleep concerns after they have taken a vacation or gone on a business trip and left their child behind. Sometimes the extended absence is unavoidable and can be due to illness or the birth of a sibling. Often parents report that all seemed fine when they were away but the problems started when they came home.

Disruptions can be challenging for children and they may react in different ways. Many children will go along with the routines when the parents are gone but may be quieter or want more attention. If the caregiver tells you that they didn’t even notice the parents gone, it is likely not true. Your child’s reaction on return will be a tell-tale sign of how much they missed you. Children may be affectionate, or not, may be extra clingy or ignore you yet be aware of you leaving the room. You should be aware that being away from their primary caregivers will create some stress for the child and a need to reconnect on your return. This is what I would refer to as a ‘security hiccup’. Not an attachment problem, but a hiccup in your child’s secure attachment. All children will experience this at some point. Even in families who co-sleep, homeschool, and babywear can have challenges at times such as when siblings are born.

The good news is that security hiccups (as well as rarer serious attachment problems) can be remedied!
Here are some tips for preparing for disruptions and for fixing any residual effects.

Preparing for leaving:

  • Ideally arrange for your child to be in a familiar place with familiar people who love them. Staying at home with her regular nanny or grandparents will offer increased security.
  • If your child cannot stay at home then do what you can to replicate their standard environment as much as possible.
  • Caregivers who are calm and relaxed will send the message to your child that he/she is safe and all is well. You might want to think about what you can do to help the babysitter get to this place before you leave. When my children were younger and in need of a babysitter for extended periods, we would load the freezer up with easy to prepare fun foods. This tended to put both the caregiver and the children in a good mood.
  • Leave a piece of you behind. Create a shrine of yourself off in a corner where you can place a special clothing item that smells like you, maybe a fuzzy sweater, scarf or blanket, preferably unwashed. Tape a picture of Mom and Dad up on the wall (a life size head shot is helpful for younger children such as an 8 x 10 photo). You can also include a special story book or two. The book can be a story of when someone went away and came back or a homemade story of how things will be unrolling over the next few weeks; consider using photographs.

Preparing your child:

  • Have some bonding cuddle time in your special corner before you leave.
  • Bonding cuddles recipe:
    • Calm Parent (one of 2 primary caregivers)
    • Cuddling together (loving touch)
    • Eye contact (gaze into your child’s eyes lovingly)
    • Sucking (If your child is sucking on something, a breast, bottle, pacifier or other object this can be a powerful tool to help your child feel secure, even for an older child)
    • Finger plays and giggles (optional)
  • Read the book together to prepare your child for the upcoming event. Make sure that you are calm, relaxed and positive as you do. One book that can be really helpful to prepare children for separation is The Invisible String by Patrice Karst 

While you are gone:

  • Your child may find comfort in going to the special corner with or without the caregiver. They should be allowed to go on their own terms if they feel a need for that comfort.
  • Maintaining rituals and routines. Keeping regular naps and bedtime as well as bedtime rituals is important. Continuing to go to preschool, playgroup and other regular activities will provide normalcy that many children thrive on.

When you return:

  • The first 30 minutes (at least) after getting home should be focused on connecting with your child. You may be surprised at their reaction; they may not warm up to you right away. You can sit on the floor and be available and wait for them to come to you. They will need to learn to trust that you will be there for them again.
  • Try to give them unlimited access to you until they are feeling secure.
  • Offer bonding cuddles in your special corner. Your child may bring you to the corner when they want to reconnect in that way.
  • If sleep is off track, it is important focus on reconnecting before addressing any sleep challenges.

If your child has a security hiccup for whatever reason, it’s common to see sleep disruptions at the same time. Children can wake in the night because they want to connect with Mom or Dad. Focusing on your child and having special cuddle time during the day can help your child feel safe, secure, and connected and within a few days they’ll return to their prior sleep habits.

copyright©2013 Andrea Strang Kinder Sleep