Helping Families With Infants When Parents Are Deployed
Attachment and Babies
Attachment describes the developing relationship between a baby and its parents or a close caregiver. Secure attachment is formed when adults respond to a baby's needs. Babies need to be picked up when crying, fed when hungry, played with when alert, and helped to sleep when tired. Babies have different temperaments, so each responds to the caregiver and environment differently. Responding to babies' differences helps babies develop trust in themselves, in others, and in the world.
All babies cry. Young babies are often difficult to comfort. It is impossible to spoil a young baby. Babies who are picked up when they cry, cry less as they get older.
Babies want to explore first their bodies and then their world. Babies scoot, crawl, or walk to get to new and interesting places. As they explore the world, they often check back in with the person they trust. They learn through movement and their senses - seeing, touching, tasting, smelling, and hearing.
Usually, before babies are five months old, they do not cry when a special person leaves. After 5 months, separation is harder and many babies cry when left by a loved one. One-year-olds may protest loudly when trusted adults leave their sight. At eighteen months, babies may show fear when approached by any stranger.
Before the Parent is Deployed
Remind parents that it is more important someone is head over heels in love with the baby than that both parents are present. The deployed parent will miss the baby but their relationship will last a lifetime and will survive the separation.
Ask the deploying parent if there is anything you can do to support the baby and the home-front parent during deployment.
To help the baby remember, think about the senses. The baby knows the world through touching, tasting, seeing, hearing, and smelling. Take pictures of the parents and the baby. These can be made into baby books to look at with the baby. Ask the deploying parent to stay for a little while one morning or afternoon and record the parent talking to or singing with their baby. Suggest the parent read to the baby or say simple rhymes like "This Little Piggy went to Market." Use the tapes with the baby after the parent is deployed.
While the Military Parent is Away
As you greet the home-front parent when they bring the baby to you each day, nurture them with your attention. Single parenting is hard work. By showing genuine concern about the family, you support the parent-child relationship. Ask about the routines of the parent and child - are they sleeping and eating regularly and getting out? If the parent has been expressing concerns about the baby, ask them about it. Unfamiliar behavior can be unsettling to a new parent.
Reassure the parent. It is more important to be calm and enjoy their baby than have a clean house or fancy meal.
Create classroom rituals and activities based on families. Talk often to the baby about the deployed parent. Look at pictures of the parents or listen to their voices on tape. Take extra pictures of the baby that can be mailed to the deployed parent. If one of your notes to the home parent captures a special moment like a first laugh, or step, or new word, suggest they pass it on to the deployed parent.
Take time to talk to the parent as they pick up their child. You may be the last adult they talk to at the end of the day. Encourage them to ask for help if you sense parenting or life is overwhelming them.
Reunion of the Family
The military parent and baby will need time to adjust to each other. The relationship that has been on hold is starting again. You may want to remind them it may take six weeks or more for family life to begin to return to normal.
Sometimes the baby will react with tears, avoiding the returning parent and clinging to a familiar caregiver. This requires sensitivity from the caregiver. The baby's stranger anxiety is a sign of healthy development, but can hurt a parent's feelings. Supportive words to the parent can help them understand that this is a normal part of infant development and not a rejection of them.
Caregivers can point out the baby's likes and dislikes to the parent, such as a favorite toy or how the baby likes to be held before falling asleep. Describe the baby's abilities to the parent. Also, be sure to ask the parents what they notice their baby enjoys. Exchanging information helps the returning parent get reacquainted sooner.
The home parent may make caring for the baby look easy. Help the returning parent understand that feeding, bathing, and changing diapers is a part of the baby's daily life. These tasks are a way to say 'I love you' to your baby.
Caregivers need to include the returning parent in decision-making about their child.