Part 3 of our Travel Series
Many parents feel the need to have some time away from their children in order to relax, reconnect as a couple, enjoy uninterrupted conversations and other adult activities, or simply to catch up on sleep.
We are often asked, “Is it OK to leave my 4 month old son with the nanny for a weekend?” “If I leave my 18 month old daughter with my parents for a week, will she be traumatized?”
As with most questions about parenting, there isn’t a “yes” or “no” answer. Many factors must be considered. However, in most cases, with thoughtful planning and preparation, you can ensure that your child will be OK and that you will be able to have a good time.*
Preparing to travel without your baby (up to 12 months of age)
- Babies live by their senses. They know their caregivers’ faces, voices, how their bodies feel, smell and move, and the sequence of routines throughout the day. It is important for the environment to retain as much as possible of what is familiar to them during your absence.
- Leave your child with a trusted person whom your baby knows well. This is the single most important factor.
- Make sure that routines, such as the sequence of meals, naps, play time, bath time, and especially the bedtime rituals remain the same as when you are at home.
- Even though you may think your baby does not understand words, it is never too early to begin talking to him. Tell him you will be back, that he will be safe and well-taken care of while you are away. Tell the caregiver to talk to your child in this reassuring way as well. Be sure to say goodbye when the time comes.
- Do not stay away more than 2 or 3 days. If possible, start by taking an overnight trip and see how that goes.
Preparing your toddler for your going away
Many of the same principles apply to toddlers as to babies, except that toddlers are far more aware and have the added advantage of understanding and being able to use words.
- Tell your toddler you will be leaving on a trip without him. For young toddlers of 16 to 24 months, tell them the day before. Tell older toddlers no more than 2 to 3 days before you leave.
- Talk to them in simple, concrete terms that they can understand. For example, you can say, “We will be gone for 2 bath times” or “2 sleeps.”
- Choose a familiar and trusted person to care for your child. If more than one person will be with her, tell her the order. For example, “Grandma and Grandpa will take care of you for one bath time (choose the word you think will make sense to your child), then Aunt Sue will take care of you for one more sleep, and then we will be back.”
- Try and keep your toddler’s routine and environment consistent and familiar. Talk to her about what will be the same as always and also about the special activities that are planned for her during your absence.
- Do not give details about what you will be doing during your trip. Keep it very simple, for example, “Mommy and Daddy are going on an airplane and will sleep in a hotel for two nights.”
- A book of pictures helps a child, especially a preverbal child, master an extended separation. This book can contain photos of you, your child, and the caregivers who will be staying with him. Or the book can tell a very simple story of what will happen and can be illustrated by hand or with photographs: saying goodbye; parent/s on an airplane or in a car; child with the person taking care of him; child in an activity with the caregiver; the return of the parent/s and reunion with the child. The child is at the center of the story, not the parents. Some children ask for the book to be “read” to them a lot, some carry it around like a transitional object, some ignore it completely. Any and all reactions are normal and typical.
- If you are going to be away for more than a couple of days, you can think about whether Skyping or phoning would be reassuring for your older toddler. If you do decide to call or to Skype, choose a time of day that will be least disruptive and upsetting to your child.
- If your child protests and cries when you explain to him that you are leaving, tell him you know that he is not used to your going away, but that he will be fine and you will be together again soon. It will help your child if you show empathy for her feelings in a calm and confident manner.
Separation is one of the main developmental challenges of the first three years of every child’s life. Here are a couple of developmental points to bear in mind:
- Just because your child is unable to speak or “too young to remember”, separations from main caregivers and changes in environment do have an impact that can be lasting if they go on for too long.
- Each baby will react in his and her own way to the separation. Do not be fooled if your child appears not to notice that you were gone, some children’s reactions are more subtle than others’. The amount of crying or the absence of crying is not an indication of how well the separation was tolerated.
- If your child turns away from you when you return, do not take this as a personal rejection or a sign that he or she is angry at you. It takes many babies and toddlers a little time to shift away from one caregiver back to another. This has more to do with cognitive development than with feelings about your absence.
You can read further about separation on our website uwsparentingsupport.com under Common Parenting Concerns.
*Please note: There are some circumstances that cannot be addressed in this post in which leaving your baby or toddler even for two days may not be advisable. You can consult one of our parent-child experts if you have concerns about leaving your child.