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Ask Dr. Sears: Introducing a New Caregiver

Q. We've employed the same caregiver for our son almost since the day he was born, and he's grown very attached to her. We recently learned that she has to leave our family. How can I help my son adjust to a new caregiver?

A. Your concern really hits home because I remember this happening to me as a child. I was raised by a single mother who worked long hours, and I became very attached to my substitute caregiver, Besse.

First, know that it's good that your child is closely attached to his caregiver, and it's quite healthy if he's sad that she's leaving. The ability to form strong attachments is one of the most important qualities a growing child can develop. Early attachments establish the roots for healthy relationships later in life. In fact, studies have shown that people who are most attached to their caregivers as infants and children are more likely to forge deep and meaningful relationships as adults. Try these tips for a smooth transition to a new caregiver:

Continue to nurture the previous relationship. No matter how young your son is, don't discount his feelings of loss. If he tells you he misses his former caregiver, sympathize with him and tell him that you miss her too. Show him that you respect that she was, and still is, a special person in his life. You can do this by looking at pictures of her together and talking about the fun things they used to do. If she still lives nearby, make an effort to reconnect occasionally. Above all, don't ignore your son's feelings or give the impression that relationships are disposable.

Choose an appropriate new caregiver. Ask your child what he misses most about his former caregiver. Make a list of the qualities he liked in her, and look for them in her replacement. Also, look for someone who is nurturing and has good attachment qualities. Does she make eye contact with you and your child? Is she a hands-on person who will give your child hugs and touch him appropriately? If your child is still an infant or toddler, ask her, "What would you do if he started to cry?" If the answer is, "Oh, I'll just let him cry it out," you may want to run from this candidate! As you're interviewing perspective caregivers, ask yourself: "Is this a person my child will enjoy being around, and do I feel good about my child getting attached to her?"

Let him be part of the selection process. Include your child in the interviews and ask his opinion about the candidates. Children can be very astute, and are good at sizing up whether or not a person likes them.

Prepare the new caregiver. Take what you've learned from your son's relationship with his former caregiver and share those insights about his daily routine, interests, and unique personality quirks with his new caregiver.

Set the stage for success. Before your new caregiver officially starts watching your son, invite her to hang out with your family several times so she can get a feel for your child and the family routine. On her first day of work, have her jump right into his favorite activities and toys. Does he love kicking a ball around the backyard? If so, start with that. Also, let your child see that you like the caregiver by praising her appropriately. If he gets the sense that you like her, then their relationship will get off to a great start.

Finally, remind your son that while his new caregiver will do some of the fun things he did with his former caregiver, she is a separate person with personality differences that he may find exciting and surprising. After all, kids like novelty and surprises!