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Baby Steps: Keeping in Touch

Q  When my baby was 5 months old, we relocated to a state that's very far away from my family, which has been really difficult for me. My daughter is now 13 months old, and my biggest fear is that she is not going to know her grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins who are all back home. We don't get to visit more than three times a year, and when we do, it takes my baby a few days to warm up to them before we have to turn right around and leave again. What can I do to help her know her extended family?

A While being away from loved ones is hard at any time, it feels particularly difficult when you are starting your own family. Not only do you need the support of those you trust, but you also become far more aware of your connection to your family and want to share that loving world with your baby.

But how do you do this when you're so far away? First, don't underestimate your daughter's memory. Babies as young as 4 months of age can remember favorite toys even if they haven't seen them in a few weeks. In older babies, the memory of how to use an object can last for months¿ -- one study found that toddlers recalled how to use toys that had been demonstrated to them as 10-month-olds. In fact, research reveals that even though your baby's age contributes to her capacity to remember, equally important is how often she is exposed to things and how many cues you provide to help her remember them.

This means that you need to find ways to help your child "see" your family often. Since you can't visit as much as you'd like, you can make them part of her world in the same way that Elmo, Barney, and Tinky Winky are¿ -- with videos, pictures, and stories. Make a video next time you are all together and play it for her at home every once in a while. Tailor it to her interests; for example, have everyone sing a different song she likes. You can also take photos of the family and make them into a special book just for your child, either by gluing them onto the blank pages of a scrapbook or by taping them to construction paper that you staple together. (You might want to laminate or put clear contact paper on whatever you use, since it is likely to be chewed.) You can then write captions that tell a story, either of the real event that's depicted in the photos or a made-up one. Hang family photos in your daughter's room, too, at her eye level, so that they're part of her environment. If you're really ambitious, you can even get a photo transferred to a t-shirt and then make a stuffed doll out of it, or you can create paper dolls out of photographs, cardboard, and clear contact paper.

The important part about all these objects is to talk about them and include them in play (without being too pushy). Tell your daughter everyone's name and relay interesting things about them, such as what they like to eat and what they tend to say ("Grandma says, 'Hi, Peanut!'"). Use this sort of information as cues when you get a chance to see your family in person ("Here's Grandpa. Remember when he sang 'Itsy Bitsy Spider' on our video?"). As your daughter grows older, she will be able to remember your family without all of these supports, but in the meantime, sharing their images can make both of you happy.

"Happy" is the key word here. Your daughter will sense your feelings when you discuss your family and will want to do what pleases you. If you gain pleasure by talking about them, your daughter will enjoy being a part of it. But if talking about your family makes you tearful, you may want to leave the task to your husband or someone else. Children are remarkably astute at picking up what their parents are feeling but not very good at deducing the causes of those feelings. So while your daughter will probably know that you're sad¿ -- even if you try to hide it¿ -- she is likely to think that you are sad because of her (remember, young children think that the world revolves around them, so this is perfectly natural). You can try to explain to her that you are missing someone, but at this age it may be hard for her to completely understand you.

If your unhappiness is intense, you may want to consider getting some outside support. When you are very sad, it is hard to accurately read your baby's signals and quite difficult to be emotionally available for her, no matter how hard you try. So if you've been feeling really unhappy for some time, consider counseling for your baby's sake as well as your own.