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Dear Care and Feeding,
I am struggling with a really rough patch of separation anxiety with my 14-month-old. He’s a COVID baby, so he’s been home with me since birth and very attached. We’ve had a nanny since he was a few months old so that my husband and I can work from home, and it’s been going mostly fine. About six weeks ago, he started getting fussy in the morning when the nanny first arrived; still, he would be his happy self again once he had napped. But more recently, we had to change nannies, and it’s been a disaster. He’s cried from the moment she arrives until the moment she leaves each day—and I mean red-faced, top of his lungs, hysterical crying. I’m two floors up in my office and try to avoid coming down to intervene, but it’s so stressful for everyone involved. The new nanny has tried all his favorite things: music, food, walks. People always say that you just need to give a brief goodbye and calmly leave and they’ll be fine after a few minutes, and that used to be the case, but I now know this isn’t always true. Our new nanny seems good, but I wonder if it’s time to try someone else.
What I need to tell you, as gently and kindly as I can, is that nannies are not interchangeable. “The nanny” is not just the person in whose care your baby was spending his days since he was a few months old; the specific human being you had employed until recently was someone, like you and your husband, that he was attached to and felt safe with.
When that human being left your employ and was suddenly replaced by another one, your 14-month-old’s world was turned upside down. I can see that it’s baffling to you that he didn’t immediately adapt to a brand-new person caring for him—but I wonder: Did you think he wouldn’t notice?
I don’t know if the person you have hired as the new nanny is a good nanny or not, but unless your instinct about her (that she seems good) is dead wrong, I doubt this problem will be quickly solved by firing her and hiring yet another new person. A nanny who spends your workday with your child becomes another member of the family to your child; it’s not surprising that in the wake of that loss, your son is feeling a panicky attachment to you. After all, he’s still a baby; for all he knows, anyone he loves may suddenly disappear. And it sounds like he was already entering a phase—they come and go!—of having a hard time being separated from you, at least at the start of the day, so the timing for the nanny-switch might have been particularly unfortunate.
But changing nannies is a fact of life for many children. It’s not too late to ease his transition. I’m not promising that it won’t be rocky. But you might want to backtrack a bit and follow these helpful guidelines from Tracy Cassels, the developmental psychologist who founded Evolutionary Parenting. She talks about helping babies adjust to a new caregiver in a series of steps. And certainly, if you decide to let the current nanny go and begin again, I would urge you to follow Dr. Cassels’ outline, including starting out with some “shared exposure,” during which you and the nanny spend time together with your son. I recognize that some of this may be impossible for you, if your job demands your presence and unwavering attention all day long—so adjust these guidelines as necessary. But don’t ask a baby or toddler to go cold turkey.
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We recently turned my 2-year-old daughter’s crib into a daybed since she was climbing out of her crib at night. After the change, she completely regressed in her sleep and went from us putting her down awake and her sleeping through the night to her screaming at bedtime and getting up multiple times. We finally had to lock her in her room to keep her from walking out after bedtime. She hated that (obviously), but she did learn that the door was locked and that if she cried we didn’t come in to get her until the morning. We don’t lock the door anymore, and she is now pretty much back to the sleep schedule she had before the change. When she wakes up now in the morning, though, she cries until one of us gets her. Is there any way to make her understand that the door is unlocked in the morning so she can come to our room and wake us up?