When Cathy Hale, who lives in Austin, Texas, left her 8-month-old son, Steele, with his grandparents so she and her husband could get away for an anniversary trip to Las Vegas, she cried as they pulled out of the driveway, teared up when she saw other babies en route, and called home multiple times a day. But at some point, she actually started to enjoy herself. "Sure, my husband and I worried when we weren't close by, but we desperately needed the chance to rest, recharge, and refocus," says Hale.
It's totally natural to be crazy worried about the thought of leaving your little one. But as much as you adore your baby, a 24-hour or longer break may be just what you need: a chance to take a breather, reconnect with your spouse, and (hallelujah!) sleep through the night. Whether you're traveling on a business trip or for a mini vacay, use our guide to make your time apart less of a big deal.
The better your kid knows his caregiver, the smoother his sleepover will be. "Grandma or Auntie or his regular nanny is always better than bringing in a new babysitter," says Fran Walfish, Psy.D., author of The Self-Aware Parent. So if your baby hasn't spent much time with a sitter, test the waters with date nights before you try for an overnighter. When you're ready to leave your little one for the night, persuade the sitter to come to you rather than leaving him at her house, suggests Dr. Walfish. Familiar surroundings will make your child feel more secure.
For her first weekend getaway without 14-week-old Sophie, Nikki Boone, of Middletown, Delaware, made sure her father- and mother-in-law were prepared: "I sent them e-mails with instructions for picking Sophie up from her child-care center and about her feeding schedule. I also posted her schedule on our fridge." It's smart to pass along info about your baby's likes, dislikes, and daily activities; if she can stay on routine it'll be less stressful, says Dr. Wider. But remember that it's not the end of the world if your sitter does things differently than you would.
Between 4 and 9 months is actually the overnighter sweet spot. Before that, your baby may still be perfecting breastfeeding, waking up a lot at night, and bonding with you and Dad, which makes it a less-than-ideal time to leave her with a sitter. Wait too long and you'll have a new set of problems. "Separation anxiety starts to rear its ugly head between 9 and 15 months," says Parents advisor Ari Brown, M.D., a pediatrician and coauthor of Baby 411. "So if you ever want to get away with your spouse, do it before this phase."
A night or even a week away doesn't have to doom a cozy nursing relationship. Although business trips took her away from her baby, Micah, for up to eight days at a time, Dana Marlowe, of Silver Spring, Maryland, always packed a breast pump, freezable gel packs, and insulated bags. She also booked hotels with an in-room fridge to ensure that she had a place to stow what she pumped. And she carried a copy of the TSA law that allows a breastfeeding mom to bring more than 3 ounces of milk through airport security, even when traveling without her child.
Just be sure to give your baby pumped milk from a bottle a few weeks before your trip to get him used to eating this way, suggests Jennifer Wider, M.D., author of The New Mom's Survival Guide. Test out different nipples and bottles till you find one your baby likes.
Doing some prep work will help her take your leaving in stride. For starters, don't plan a secret escape if your baby is 9 months or older. "Many parents think it's easier to sneak away and avoid the drama as you walk out," says Dr. Brown. "But telling your child you're leaving will help relieve her separation anxiety." Then create ways to stay in touch while you're gone. When Jennifer MacKenzie Baker, of Glen Allen, Virginia, road-tripped to South Carolina with her husband, the two talked to their 7-month-old son via Skype. "He got excited to hear our voices," says MacKenzie Baker.
Ditch the guilt and remember that having a few days all to yourself will probably make you a calmer, more relaxed mom in the long run--plus with digital photos and e-mail updates from home, you won't miss a thing. But if the thought of leaving your baby for a vacation has you feeling too anxious, try a modified version. "Book a hotel room in town, so if your child needs you you'll be available," says Dr. Walfish.
Originally published in the February 2011 issue of Parents magazine.