: I’m seven months pregnant with my first child. I’m a single mom and I need to work. I want this baby more than anything in the world, and I’ve always known I’d have to go back to work. I’ve arranged with my boss to take two months off after the baby is born, and then to return full-time. Now I’m having second thoughts. I need the money and I don’t want to lose my job, yet I’m concerned about leaving my baby so young. I’ve read some pretty scary things about inadequate daycare and the terrible things that can happen when mothers don’t bond with their children. I’m worried that my choice to go back to work is going to hurt my baby. What should I do?
You’ve raised some very important issues. Yes, it is important for parents to bond with their babies. The first several months are a critical time for getting to know each other, discovering each other’s rhythms, and learning each other’s communication systems. It’s also a rich time for establishing your role as a new parent and building a community of support for your family.
Your basic question is, “Do I have to stay home with my baby in order for us to bond deeply?” The answer has lots of parts to it. In order get to know your baby; to establish a strong, attached, trusting relationship you need to spend quality, focused, connected and relaxed time with her. This can be done in a variety of ways. You can do it by staying home and being a full-time parent. Or you can do it by setting up a reasonable work schedule for yourself and a quality childcare situation for your baby.
It is important to know that successful attachment requires more than just being with your baby 24 hours a day. Research shows us that unhappy or chronically-depressed parents are less likely to build responsive, trusting relationships with their infants. Either stay-at-home or working parents who are continuously unhappy with their circumstances can have difficulty being appropriately responsive with their infants. Likewise, a parent who is happy in her job is more likely to have a child who is securely attached, as is a parent who is content with being an “at-home” parent.
Here are some things to consider whether you plan to be a stay-at-home parent or a parent who works outside the home:
Parents need to learn babies’ communication cues
One of the most important things that happens in the first year between parents and babies is communication. Long before children are able to speak in recognizable language, they are richly communicating their needs, ideas, and feelings with the attentive people who are caring for them.
Parents need to slow down to their baby’s pace for some time every day
In order to get “in sync” with each other, and to read their baby’s cues, parents need to give up the world’s harried pace for a solid period of time each day. This means clearing your mind of work or other agendas, getting close to your baby (sitting or getting down on the floor near her) and just watching. Your baby will enjoy your focused attention and you will learn a lot about her through your observation. And when your daughter looks over at you and lets you know she is ready for interaction your response will be much more appropriate because you have gotten into her rhythm.
Parents need support and information
Getting information and support allows parents to maintain the inner resources necessary to connect effectively with their children. All parents need support for the difficult, taxing, challenging and wonderful job they are doing as parents. Sometimes parents in a couple listen and support each other. Single parents and others who don’t have a ready-made support system will need to develop friends or family members who want to support them by listening, providing childcare, cooking a special meal, or picking up your baby from childcare.
In order to gain confidence and stay open to their babies, parents also need information: “What can you expect of a two-month-old?” “What kinds of rashes should I be worried about?” “When should a child be able to share?” “How can I help my child learn language?” Parent support groups or classes, experienced parents, books, and websites are some of the resources parents can turn to with questions.
Working parents need to find quality infant care
Quality infant care, along with a parent’s job satisfaction are two of the most critical issues in predicting a baby’s success in childcare. Here are several things to look for in choosing care for your infant. You may not be able to find all of them. You can decide which are the most important elements and focus on those:
- Choose the best type of childcare to fit your needs. There are “in-home” caregivers who care for your infant in your home, licensed family childcare homes which care for several children in the home of the caregiver and licensed childcare centers which care for groups of children in a center with several caregivers.
- Look for trained caregivers. One of the most important determinants of quality infant care is caregiver training. Twelve units of Early Childhood Education or Child Development is a good start, but many caregivers have 30 or more units. Ask caregivers what training they have had.
- Look for licensed and accredited programs. Any program you consider should be licensed by the state or county. There are also national accreditation tools for both center and home-based care. The National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC) has an accreditation process for centers which requires a higher standard of quality than licensing.
- Look for the quality factors for infant care. Infants should be cared for in small groups. Babies under 8 months of age should be in groups of no more than 6 children. There should be at least one caregiver for each 3 babies. Each baby should have a primary caregiver who is responsible for the major part of her care and for daily communication with her parent. Feeding, sleeping and playing schedules should be individualized for each baby’s needs. There should be a plan for continuity of care, such that each baby will have the same caregiver for a long period of time, optimally, for the first three years.
- Look for a program/caregiver who you are comfortable with. You own comfort with a caregiver is a good indicator of whether your child will feel comfortable. Sometimes it is just a feeling about a person and nothing you can put your finger on. It is important to pay attention to these signals.
- Observe the program/caregiver. You should spend some time with the caregiver before you make your decision. Watch her/him with children. Visit at different times of the day to see what the schedule looks like. Watch the caregiving routines, such as diapering, feeding, and sleeping. Are babies treated respectfully? Are they included in the process or is caregiving done with an assembly-line feel?
- Ask questions. Find a time when the caregiver is free to talk (maybe after her shift) and ask her questions about her work with children, the program, her philosophy, and her background.
- Check references. You can get information from parents, the licensing agency or the local Child Care Resource and Referral Network.
Parents need to have information about their baby’s day
Stay-at-home parents need to take time to observe their babies throughout the day. Sometimes, jotting down a few notes creates a wonderful record of development and is a sweet reminder at a later date about the milestones your baby has passed. Working parents also need to make these observations during their non-work hours. In addition, it is important for them to have ample time each day to communicate with the person who is caring for their baby. Talking with caregivers at drop-off and pick-up times allows parents to share valuable information about the baby’s night, food intake and other family news. Hearing about your baby’s day from the caregiver allows you to receive important information about your baby’s experiences throughout the day. These daily check-ins can be verbal, written or both.
Parents need to work with their own circumstances to create the best situation for their baby
There are many factors to consider when making the decision when and if to return to work. There are economic factors, job security, parental preferences, and the availability of quality, affordable childcare. Each family and parent will need to weigh all of these factors. It is a time to examine what you really want for your family. There may be ways for parents who need to return to work for economic reasons or job security to negotiate a partial work schedule, a shared contract, working part-time from home, an extended maternity (or paternity) leave and/or a loan. If you feel that you are not ready to go back to work full-time, it is important to talk to your boss or other employers about alternatives.
One difficult issue is that many parents don’t know until after they become parents how long they are going to want to stay at home. It is helpful to negotiate as flexible a plan as possible and/or to ask for as much time as is allowed so that you have more choices after the baby comes.
Reorder you priorities so that you can spend as much time with baby as possible.
The first year of a baby’s life is often a time when parents put other interests on hold and simplify their living needs, so they can be with their baby as much as possible. There will be many evenings spending sweet family time together amidst piles of unfolded laundry, dirty dishes, with yet another quesadilla for dinner.
Getting to know a new, precious, vulnerable human being is one of the most transformative events in our lives. The more you pare away what is unessential, the more room you create to enjoy this amazing miracle you have brought into your life.