Dear Dr. Debbie,
I’m a relatively new mom (four months since giving birth) so there have been a lot of adjustments, but there is one thing I wasn’t prepared for. When I leave the room, even for a minute, my little daughter cries as if I were never coming back. Doesn’t she know yet that I always return? The longest I’ve left her is three hours — with Daddy — when I went to a doctor’s appointment. She fussed a good 10 minutes making him reluctant to be left alone with her after that. I feel like I can’t even go to the bathroom unless she’s asleep or she’ll panic.
Not That Long
One of the thinking skills that takes a while to develop is memory. The hippocampus — the part of the brain responsible for memory — is still maturing through early childhood. This part of the brain handles encoding, sorting and sending memories to be filed away in the appropriate areas of the cortex. This explains why your baby gets a belly laugh when you drop your car keys, and if you purposely drop them again, she’ll laugh just as hard. It will continue to surprise her and tickle her funny bone until you tire of the game (it can be exhausting to watch a baby laugh for too long).
Jerome Kagan, a pioneer in developmental psychology, said that “single experiences that occur before 9 months are less likely to be remembered and therefore less likely to affect future behavior.” In other words, your baby can’t remember that you have come back before, but after a fretful 10 minutes she forgets what she was upset about. Kagan directed the Mind/Brain Behavior Interfaculty Initiative at Harvard University and became world renowned for his research on the cognitive and emotional development of children during the first decade of life. He noted that while retrieving a memory is challenging for an infant, such as “Mommy returned after disappearing before,” it is not impossible.
The key for building a strong memory is repetition. Repeated experiences — with accompanying language and other sounds, movements, smells, familiar faces, and her own emotional state — will impress themselves into permanent memories. This is why rituals are so important for infants and toddlers. Dressing, feeding and good-byes go more smoothly when they are carried out with a positive routine. Along with your faithful repetitions the hippocampus is getting better at its job. Soon an established memory helps your daughter to know with confidence what’s coming next.
Start with peek-a-boo. This universal first social game delights the baby with the reappearance of a familiar face. The more you play it, the more easily she can anticipate what will happen next. Use the same object (a blanket or your hands), the same delivery of words (Where’s Mommy? Peek-a-boo!) with the same rhythm and inflection each time you play. Add variations such as having her hold the blanket (or gently hold her or your hands over her eyes) so that she can someday take the lead in the game.
Play a similar game to hide and reveal the whole of you. In a confident tone, tell her “I’ll be right back” and duck behind the couch. Come out saying, “Here I am!” or “I came back!” and give her a kiss. Extend the time and distance of your withdrawal as she shows you that she is not upset about your leaving.
I played this game with my grandson when he was a baby — and was able to use it when I actually had to leave his sight for a few minutes. He warmed my heart at about age 2 ½ when he realized he needed something from the other room, and in exactly the same way I had been saying it to him told me he’d be “ri-ight back” and toddled off. Sure enough, he returned after a moment’s absence demonstrating to me that he meant what he said.
Other caregivers, such as Daddy, should build up their reliability with your daughter with these games, too. Her ever-expanding world will feel like a safe and secure place if she knows she has several adults to count on.
Keep reassuring your her that you are there for her, and though at times you disappear, your words and actions prove your steadfast dependability.
Deborah Wood is a child development specialist in Annapolis. She holds a doctorate in Human Development from the University of Maryland at College Park and is founding director of the Chesapeake Children’s Museum. Long time fans and new readers can find many of her “Understanding Children” columns archived on the Chesapeake Family Magazine website. You can find her online at drdebbiewood.com.
What do you think? Leave your thoughts in the comments or submit a question to Dr. Debbie at Betsy@jecoannapolis.com