My baby is 9 weeks old and I have a high-school reunion in another state. Can I leave the baby and for how long?
MOLLY: This question was submitted a reader based in New Jersey but I had a similar dilemma myself.
Dr. Susan Rutherford (Molly’s Mom): Well, I would have to say that, generally speaking, you shouldn’t leave the baby before the child is two years old.
MOLLY: Really, ever? Not even for a weekend?
DR. RUTHERFORD: Are you talking about before the baby is two?
DR. RUTHERFORD: If you can work around it, don’t leave the child. If you know you are going to have to leave the child to go somewhere else, sometimes it’s better to do this earlier rather than later because when they hit the 7th or 8th month of age, they’re beginning the acute stage of separation anxiety from the mother. It’s a very important time for a child because you can end up with long term issues much later on from the disruption in the bonding.
MOLLY: What are some of the things that could happen?
DR. RUTHERFORD: Well, the child might have issues about whether he or she can trust their caretaker or spouse when they’re older.
MOLLY: You mean the baby could grow up and not trust their caretaker if the parents leave for an extended period of time.
DR. RUTHERFORD: Let me start with the other end of it. The way the issue gets resolved for kids is that they see that their mother comes and goes. She might go away, but she always comes back. And you say to the kid, no matter what the age, even if you think they’re too young to understand you, “Mommy always comes back when she goes away.” It’s like a mantra.
So they get used to that concept of people coming and going without them, but it’s a very gradual process and for some children it’s much more intense than for other children.
MOLLY: So let’s say you end up leaving your little kid while you go on a vacation with your husband, or something like that. What might you see as a result as the kid grows older. What behaviors might you see that would result from this early separation?
DR. RUTHERFORD: I think you might see signs of anxiety and not completely trusting the grown-ups in charge.
MOLLY: Would this be in their teenage years?
DR. RUTHERFORD: You would see it even earlier. Early. Not long after the event occurred.
MOLLY: So in general, you shouldn’t leave the baby for a vacation?
DR. RUTHERFORD: In general, unless it’s an emergency, I would suggest you not go. If you are going to go, a weekend is the most, and obviously you need to have a very good caretaker for your baby. The reason why I say it’s better earlier than later, like around 8 months, is because they haven’t differentiated between the mother and anybody else in a highly significant way. They probably do differentiate between the mother by her smell but it is not as intense at that time the way it will be for a 10-month old.
MOLLY: What if you have to go away, and you have their favorite sitter or grandparent to watch them?
DR. RUTHERFORD: Well that’s the best of scenarios, but if you do it, you should plan to be around a lot afterward.
MOLLY: Because there will be some fall-out?
DR. RUTHERFORD: Oh yeah, there will be a lot of fall-out. What I would suggest is that you might leave each child a little gift for the sitter to give her, one a day, while you’re gone.
MOLLY: Okay, that’s a good idea. When do you think it’s an okay age to do this?
DR. RUTHERFORD: After two. And be aware, you are going to have to deal with it when you get home, and children do various things. I’ve never had this experience but I’ve heard about it a lot, where the parents will come home from time away and the kids will totally ignore them, won’t look at them. All I can say is: prepared to be around more to deal with the fall-out.