QUESTION: We are thinking about letting our two-year-old son stay over with his grandparents (my in-laws) soon, for the first time, and I’m concerned he will get really distressed.
I have friends who have had their children stay overnight in their parents’ houses since they were only babies, but I wouldn’t even think about it.
He has never stayed over anywhere before without us. This was always my choice. I have only twice had other people even put him down to bed in our house.
The first time was when my mom looked after him and it was fine. The second time my mother-in-law put him to bed. He got upset and was calling for us, naturally, but my MIL got upset too, which concerned me and I was afraid then that he must have been super-distressed if she wasn’t coping.
Maybe I’m overdoing it and being too controlling? I know I have to let him stay over and have some independence (well, that’s what everyone is telling me) but is there a good (or a bad) age to start this?
ANSWER: There is no particularly good or bad age to start letting children experience care from other people. It is a very natural thing for children to be looked after by extended family and we have relied on grandparents, particularly, to step in for generations. However, staying over is not some rite of passage that a child must experience.
It is okay for you to wait until you feel ready and you believe your child is ready for a separation like an overnight.
Your heart, or your gut instinct, seems to tell you that your son needs more time before overnighting away from you. Perhaps this is an indicator that either you or he is not yet ready.
In my experience, there are three very significant factors that mediate how successfully alternative care will go.
The first factor is your baby’s or child’s temperament. Some children are slow to warm up to the company of others and find it hard to settle when separated from their primary caregiver (parent).
This can mean that the child will cry for longer and resist being comforted. Whoever is caring for that child may feel they are not able to settle them and, sometimes, this can knock their confidence and their ability to cope.
The second factor is the parent’s own feelings about the impending separation. If we are very anxious about leaving our child in the care of someone else then it is quite likely that a portion of that anxiety will transfer on to our child. Naturally if we seem upset or worried about leaving them they will assume that the separation is worrisome too.
The third factor is the confidence and competence of the person who will provide the stand-in care, whether it be babysitting or full day care.
The sense of confidence and assurance that an experienced carer gives off is comforting for children. They feel, literally, as if they are in a safe pair of hands. Conversely, when a carer is worried or stressed this can transfer to the child, who may become more anxious and harder to settle.
All of these factors may have been at play the only time that you left your son with your mother-in-law at night. I am sure that your son missed you very much, since he was so used to you or his dad being there to settle him to bed. His routine was disrupted and that alone could have produced some anxiety.
Added to that, your mother-in-law may have felt the pressure for everything to be okay and so she might have panicked when her grandson didn’t seem to settle in the time frame that she expected.
Don’t forget, too, that falling asleep typically requires children to have the utmost feeling of safety and security. The more comfortable they feel with their carer at other times of the day the more reassured they may allow themselves to be at night.
The good news is that all of this is quite natural and understandable. Knowing what you all now know about your son’s bedtime needs and his likely response to being put to bed by anyone other than you, everyone can be better prepared.
Your son staying overnight in someone else’s house is a further change for him and an even more novel experience. It is quite likely, therefore, that when he first stays away he will be quite distressed.
This is not necessarily a reason to avoid letting him stay with his granny, but it does mean that his granny needs to be ready to understand, empathise and regulate the distress that he might feel.
Your mother-in-law needs to be prepared for lots of crying and lots of soothing on her part. I think that if she knows what to expect she will cope fine, given that she has reared children of her own.
Your son also needs lots of time with his granny, in her house, during daytime hours, before you consider letting him stay overnight. He needs time to get comfortable.
He needs to be able to play happily in the bedroom he will use in her house and he needs lots of opportunity to feel comforted, reassured and loved by his granny while she, too, feels good about minding him.
She may also want to put him to bed a few times in your house so that he can get used to being settled to sleep by her in familiar surroundings.
Then, finally, you have to think about yourself and how prepared you are to let him go. Hard though it may be, separation will occur for every child and their parent at some stage.
It is quite likely that your son will have some distress and it is important you feel reassured that his distress can and will be responded to, comfortingly, by his granny.
If you still hold on to a strong feeling that he is not ready, and if you are very worried about how he, or his granny, will cope then you may find the experience does indeed turn out to be very distressing for all involved.
If that is the case then just wait a bit longer until you can feel reassured. If you think the time is right, then breathe deeply and enjoy your overnight away from him. – Irish Independent
* David Coleman is a child psychologist