Q. My husband and I argue over whether to let my mother-in-law or anyone else take care of our 10-month-old son for a weekend. I'm just not ready; I feel that a child should be with his parents for the first year. He has never been without me. Is it too early to let him go?
There is no right or wrong answer about the appropriate age to leave your child with other caregivers for a period of time. Ask yourself a few questions before you plan a trip:
What is your son's temperament? Is he an outgoing, communicative baby or is he more shy about his needs? For example, does he let you know he is hungry loud and clear or does he wait for you to remember? If he's on the shy side, your departure might be more distressing for him than it would be for a more vocal, easygoing baby. This doesn't mean you can't leave him, just be aware (and let your care-giver know) that he might have a hard time with your absence.
Where is he developmentally? After about 6 or 7 months, babies are more likely to experience separation anxiety and often go through phases when they are unusually demanding and clingy. If your son is going through one of these phases, it may not be the best time to leave him. Since irritability sometimes accompanies developmental milestones, you also might not want to plan a trip just as your baby is struggling to crawl or walk.
Who is the sitter? What is his relationship like with the caregiver? Has the sitter fed him, bathed him, and put him to sleep? Babies feel better with sitters who are sure of themselves. No matter how much your mother-in-law (or whomever) loves your son, if she hasn't been on the front lines of baby care with him, you may not want to leave him for a weekend. Start with an afternoon and work your way up.
What is the venue? Since routine is so important to a baby, it's much better for your sitter to come to your house than for your baby to go elsewhere.
How do you feel? Finally, you need to consider your comfort level with leaving your son. If you go away with your husband but spend the whole time miserable and worried, it may not be worth it. Compromise with your husband by taking shorter outings alone together. This will help you prepare for a longer separation in the future.
If you do go, don't be surprised if you don't get the warmest welcome when you return. Under the best circumstances, babies and toddlers can be a little aloof when their parents return after a long separation. Don't take this coyness the wrong way -- it's just a part of how your son might have coped with your absence.
Anita Sethi, Ph.D., is a research scientist at The Child and Family Policy Center at New York University. She has two sons.