What should I do if my child is more attached to their nanny than to me?

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I was recently sent this question on my ‘Don’t Stew – Ask Sue’ section of my weekly podcast.

You can send me in your niggles, worries or problems too to [email protected]

Dear Sue,

My 9-month-old is bonding with our nanny so strongly that at night he cries for her. This is really upsetting me as well as my partner. I feel guilty that I have to go to work, yet I also enjoy that aspect of my life too & I really do spend a lot of time with our son. I get up early to play with him in the morning, I give him breakfast, I get home in time to do bath time regularly, and I share putting him to bed with my partner and love reading stories to him but I’m worried that he’s more attached to his nanny than he is to us. What should we do? Esther Brumberg from Bolder in Colorado


I was recently speaking to a nanny of a two-year-old little boy, and his parents often told her that he constantly would ask for her when she wasn’t there. But also, he constantly asked for them when she was with him too.

I think young children sometimes don’t know where people have gone when they’re not around and they also like to feel that all of the people they love are all OK if they aren’t physically near them & they can’t see them.

Piaget the Swiss psychologist created the term “object permanence” and it is used to describe a child’s ability to know that objects, or people, continue to exist even though they can no longer be seen or heard.

If you have ever played a game of “peek-a-boo” with your very young child, then you probably understand how this works.

When an object is hidden from sight, infants under a certain age often become upset that the item has vanished. This is because they are too young to understand that the object continues to exist even though it can’t be seen.

I don’t think he cares about you any less because he asks about someone who’s not there – he maybe just trying to get oriented and find out what’s going on with the people he loves.

Mothers and nannies: It’s a complex relationship.

I know mums who have fired their caregivers for becoming too attached to their kids, and not just for the more serious habit of being unreliable or permanently attached to their mobile phones ?

Feelings are complex. Mums want their nannies to nurture their kids as they would & want them to love them — but not too much.

Mums who have nannies often feel guilty about working or leaving their child with another caregiver.

But what sort of parent would you be if you hired a nanny in the hope that your child wouldn’t really like them?

Most small children fall in love with their adult carers whether it’s a grandparent, friend, aunt, nanny or au pair or whoever looks after them regularly and treats them with consistent kindness – they will soon be the honoured recipient of lots of love and hugs and Mums and Dads wouldn’t be human if they didn’t feel the occasional prick of jealousy about this.

But focus on the fact that you must have got your choice right. So many things can go wrong with nannies and au pairs– unreliability, personality clashes, inexperience, disagreements over what constitutes an acceptable amount of sugar or technology.

Getting a good nanny and holding on to them can feel like winning the lottery.

So be thankful not jealous.

You have a whole lifetime to share your love, experiences and time with your children.

As long as your child feels secure, loved and nurtured I think you should relax.

Don’t waste time worrying about who your offspring “prefers” small children rarely compile a top 10 list of favoured adults!

Once live-in nannies become established and settled, they essentially become members of your family, and – unless you’re quite unusual – you don’t expect your children to keep other family members at arm’s length, do you?

For most parents in this position, the close bond between their child and the nanny is an enormous positive, and one of the most compelling reasons for choosing a nanny to care for your children.

Children benefit from the love of all the adults in their lives. Different caregivers have different gifts to give them in terms of time, patience and interests. So, embrace that don’t fight it.

Some tips to help:

Missing Special Moments. Make peace with the fact that you may find yourself missing intimate and special moments, first words, first steps or other milestones & address your feelings before this happens. Don’t allow your jealousy to create an unstable, tense environment or atmosphere in your home. Encourage sharing in the celebrations with your nanny.

Resentment. Don’t allow your feelings of guilt or regret to overwhelm you and damage the atmosphere in your home. ‘Do the work’ on yourself! Admit your feelings and let them out in a healthy way – acknowledge them but don’t let them build walls between you and your nanny – aim to build bridges sharing the joys as well as the sorrows of your child’s day.

Childcare Skills. Children may develop stronger ties with your nanny simply because they have more experience dealing with children and may have better childcare skills than you. They may be more fun, patient or consistent. For a parent to admit that their nanny has a better bond with their child can be a very painful admission but it’s important to recognise that and to remember that it won’t always be like that. Children grow up, go to school and have a world outside of your home. This is a stage and a phase of all your lives. Keep the bigger picture.

Tips for Mums

There are a few steps that mums can take to help minimise or reduce the feelings of jealousy.

  • Understand Child Development

Be mindful that when your little one is practicing their first words; they may call the nanny “mama.” This doesn’t mean your child thinks the nanny is their mother, because they are simply saying the easiest words they know.

  • Support the Nanny/Child Relationship

Studies have shown that the more care and love your child receives will ultimately help your child’s relationship with you. So remember that and embrace it.

  • Spend Quality Time with Your Child Each Day

Children spell love T-I-M-E so plan in regular times to get back early from work to do the bath time, or get up earlier in the morning to give your child breakfast and play before you leave for work.  PLAN time to bond with your child. Work things out so that after you come home, you’re feeding your child or reading to them. Quality time will help you develop and sustain a deep lifetime bond and help you feel less anxious or guilty.

  • Acceptance

One of the best things that you can do is sit down and discuss your feelings with your nanny. A good nanny, a mature nanny will understand your feelings and when you open up, it may actually strengthen the relationship between you. Be open, authentic but not needy.

  • Build the ‘We’ Team

Don’t get angry at your nanny for doing the job you hired her to do! After you have shared your feelings, let the nanny know that she is your partner.  Work together for the good of your child. You’re the employer, but this is a team effort and ultimately, your goal is to make sure that your child is loved, settled, secure, relaxed and growing and learning happily.

Tips for Nannies

As a professional you can also play a part in preventing jealousy. As an experienced nanny you will be aware of your family’s feelings and should be mature enough to understand where the feelings come from, understanding that mum may have guilt which is manifesting itself in her behaviour towards you. Help her don’t judge her.

Expect jealousy. This doesn’t mean that you tolerate mistreatment, rudeness or bad behaviour but it’s that you understand it is a natural feeling for many mums and it is something that you can talk to her about.

Include the parents. Make an effort to include the parents in everything. Keep a daily journal of fun, important or special events or moments in the day, if it feels appropriate. Anything that the child may have done while the parents are at work will interest them. Send texts or photos on WhatsApp if that’s what you agree. Don’t bombard or create a neediness through the parent’s guilt but have the attitude of sharing ‘Magic Moments’ together.

Follow the parent’s lead. Remember you are in this together – you’re on the same side – which is helping to raise a happy, confident, resilient child. When the parents and especially the mum, understands that you’re being supportive, they’re less likely to see you as a threat.

Never criticise the parents. It goes without saying that parents want the best for their children. BIG TIP – don’t undermine them, embarrass them or belittle them.

Ignore jealous comments. I have a saying with the parents that I work with, ‘Let this go over your head like the famous Royal Air Force – Red Arrows planes’ flying past you.’ meaning – don’t get sucked in to the criticism or snidey comments. Realise where these comments may be coming from and move on without dwelling on them. Not easy – but important.

Communicate, communicate, communicate. Keep talking and more importantly listening to each other. Express your feelings and ask the mum how she’s feeling too to keep the lines of communication positive and healthy.

The Bottom Line. When it comes to reducing jealousy, parents and nannies have to work together and make sure they’re communicating their feelings. It’s also important to understand that jealousy is a natural feeling BUT this doesn’t mean that it’s healthy for the household! Once it has been identified, work on controlling it and building a healthy ‘team’ for the child.

One simple tip I recommend is to get a lovely photograph of the child & put it in the middle of the table when you are discussing issues. This keeps you focused on what’s best for the child and is a brilliant way to work together.

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