Q. We're planning to leave our 6-month-old with a babysitter for the first time while we attend an evening wedding. I'm worried because my daughter doesn't do very well with new people. How can we prepare her?
A. You've already taken the most important step by tuning in to the fact that your daughter is slow to warm up to new people. Plus, at 6 months, all babies tend to cling to their mother or other caregivers because this is the age when they begin to differentiate between the people they know and those they don't.
First, have the sitter come over to visit for an hour before your evening out so she and your daughter can get to know each other in the safety of your presence. It will also give you a chance to talk about how you care for your daughter and to show the sitter what her routines are, how she likes to be held and fed, what upsets her, how to soothe her, and what kinds of play she likes.
On the night you're going out, ask the sitter to come to your house about a half an hour before you plan to leave, which will give your daughter time to make the transition. When the sitter arrives, sit down with her and the baby for a few minutes and get involved in an activity, such as playing with toys on a floor mat. That way, when you leave, your daughter and the sitter will already be engaged.
When you head out the door, it's important that you say good-bye to them. Avoid the temptation to sneak out because that sends the message that you're doing something wrong by leaving. This will only increase your baby's anxiety about the separation -- even at 6 months she can pick up on your feelings and react to them. Saying good-bye tells your child that she can count on you to let her know what's going on. It also means she doesn't have to worry about when you're going to disappear next.
Bid your baby farewell with a cheerful tone, smiles, and warm hugs. If you have a worried look on your face and a quivering voice, the message is, again, that you don't feel good about leaving her and she must have something to worry about. And don't come back in once you've left -- for the same reasons. Although you're understandably anxious about leaving your child for the first time, it will get easier as she learns that you always come back.
Claire Lerner, LCSW, is a child development specialist at Zero to Three, a national nonprofit promoting the healthy development of babies and toddlers (zerotothree.org).
Originally published in American Baby magazine, February 2004.