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Ask Dr. Sears: Back-to-Work Baby Anxiety

Q. I was a stay-at-home mom for the first four months of my daughter's life, but I went back to work several weeks ago. Since then, she has stopped sleeping through the night and has been rejecting her father. She's also become extremely attached to me. I'm constantly rocking her to sleep at bedtime, but as soon as I try to lay her down in her crib, she'll have none of it! Is it possible for babies this young to have separation anxiety, and if so, what can I do to ease it?


A. What you're experiencing is a normal nighttime quirk, and it's one shared by many a mother after she returns to work. Try to imagine how your baby might be feeling about her new daily routine: When you were at home, she was in your arms and possibly at your breast quite often, and she got used to this sense of oneness and enjoyed it. She developed certain expectations (called patterns of association): "I cry because I'm hungry, so Mom immediately picks me up and feeds or comforts me." Now that pattern has been altered, and she's reacting accordingly. Here's how you can minimize separation anxiety (for both of you) and help your baby sleep better at night.

Select a nurturing caregiver. Since your daughter has learned to expect your unique way of nurturing, be sure your daytime caregiver matches your mothering style as closely as possible. For example, if your baby is used to being held often and picked up when she cries, a caregiver with a fear-of-spoiling or "let him cry it out" mindset would be a mismatch.

Consider co-sleeping. Your baby's new habit of night waking is understandable. During the day, she is missing you, so she tends to sleep more. At night, however, she sees a chance to reconnect with you and make up for missed touch, so she stays awake. It's common for new working mothers to go through a month or so of sleep deprivation as both mom and baby adjust to the changed routine. Many mothers who return to work find they sleep much better if they have their baby closer to them at night. Try putting your daughter's crib next to your bed, or using a co-sleeper  -- a bassinet that fits safely and snugly next to your mattress and puts baby within arm's reach for quick and easy feeding and comforting in the middle of the night. When my wife went back to work, she found that co-sleeping made it much easier for her to nurse without her or the baby completely waking up. It was also a way to keep up the milk supply, which tends to dwindle a little after mothers return to work. If co-sleeping with your baby every night seems a bit much, try it on weekends and holidays to keep your milk supply at an optimum level.

Have a happy departure and happy reunion. The key to minimizing separation anxiety is to sneak in as much time as possible with your baby while you're at home. Lay out your wardrobe and do what you can to prepare for work the night before. In the morning, take time out for feeding and cuddling before you leave. Work with your caregiver to schedule naps and feedings so that when you arrive home your baby is well-rested but ready to eat or nurse. Breastfeeding is a great way to unwind after a busy day's work (a baby's sucking produces relaxing hormones).

Reschedule naps. If you're away from your baby most of the day, consider having her nap later in the afternoon so that she's rested and playful in the evening. Many parents do just the opposite, scheduling an early afternoon nap so that baby will go to bed early, leaving more couple-time in the evening. But early nappers are often cranky during the hour that precedes bedtime  -- the very hour that you arrive home from work. For you, later bedtimes may equal more fun time with baby.

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