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Ask Dr. Sears: Leaving Baby for Vacation

Q. I have a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to go on a vacation with my husband and my parents to Africa. However, it means leaving my son -- who will be only 17 months old at the time -- with my mother-in-law. He is 13 months old now, does not attend daycare, co-sleeps, and is still nursing. If I gradually wean him over the next three months, do you think leaving him will be too traumatic? Any advice on how I can go about doing this would be greatly appreciated. Or if you think it's just a terrible idea, that would also be good to know.

A.
You are facing a difficult dilemma. And really, the choice is between not one, but two "once-in-a-lifetime" opportunities: the trip and the continuation of this high degree of attachment parenting. This is a question for which there are no absolute, black-or-white answers, nor would it be fair for me to attempt to give you an absolute yes or no. Yet, it is pretty common for parents to face such choices during their baby's early months. And with Martha and I having faced the same sort of dilemma ourselves many times, I can offer some considerations as you reach a decision that is best for you and your baby.

Do You Have Any Other Options?

Is there absolutely no way to take your toddler with you? Africa may not be top on the list for toddler safety, but bringing your son is an option you might explore. Obviously, you wouldn't want to bring him if you're going to be alone in the middle of the jungle on safari.

If you and your husband want to take your toddler along and your parents do not, have them consider this: Spending a month with their grandchild would give them a great opportunity to be grandparents and enjoy the fun antics of a 17-month-old who is just beginning to talk. Martha and I are at the stage in our lives when our children are grown. We don't get to see our grandchildren enough, so when we travel, we enjoy taking our married children and grandkids along.

Or perhaps it's your husband who is looking forward to having a romantic, childless getaway with you. You might want to warn him that you may not be the most attractive mate if your body is in Africa, yet your mind is back with your child. Tell him (and then show him) that you'll do your best to be sure there's a lot of romance on the trip. After all, grandparents make natural babysitters.

How Separation-Sensitive Is Your Baby?

Some babies can go to familiar substitute caregivers without a lot of anxiety. Other babies are more sensitive. If yours is comfortable and familiar with your mother-in-law, and enjoys going to her now, it will make things easier if you decide to leave him home. On the other hand, if your baby is still highly attached to you through co-sleeping and breastfeeding and shows no signs of weaning, it may be hard on both you and your baby. What do your instincts tell you?

Is This Truly a "Once in a Lifetime Opportunity?"

A trip to Africa is something you might have a chance of doing in the future. Parenting your baby, however, is something you can't do over again. From your description of your style of parenting, it's clear that you have a lot invested in your relationship with your baby. And your baby is used to this high standard of care and attachment. While you may consider your baby as a separate person, your baby still sees it as a mother-baby unit -- a oneness. How incomplete might he feel without you? Only you can answer this question. It might help to ask yourself, "If I were my baby, what would I want my mother to do?"

How Will This Decision Make You Feel?

You could try to make a pretend decision. Ponder all these considerations and talk it over with your husband and parents. Then, make a "definite" decision to go or to stay. Live with that decision for a week and if it still feels right to you at the end of the week, go ahead. If a little voice inside you is still uneasy with your decision, then just don't do it. If you do decide to go, then you need a field test. Periodically leave your baby with your mother-in-law for a while. Over the next few weeks, gradually increase the amount of time your child stays away. Fortunately, you have three month's time to reevaluate your decision.

How Will This Affect the Next Three Months?

Part of the pleasure of parenting is to enjoy the present and not worry about the future. In our pediatric practice, I frequently see mothers who, because of circumstances like returning to work, know they will eventually have to leave behind some of their attachments with their babies. As the date for the "big break" approaches, many of them have been focusing so much on the split that they fail to savor fully each day with their baby. Don't let your focus on weaning him over the next three months cheat you out of the wonderful relationship you now have.

Between 13 and 18 months, your baby enters a crucial developmental stage in which his separation anxiety may increase or decrease. It's during this stage that a developmental perk clicks in called person permanence. This is the ability for your baby to imagine you exist, even though he can't see you. When babies develop person permanence, they recreate pictures of their mothers in their minds and they usually experience less separation anxiety. Still, some babies will experience greater anxiety. You alone are the best judge of how your son has changed.

Please let us know your decision. And, if you decide to go, perhaps we can post another question on how to stay connected while apart.

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