Q&A: mom going on business trip

Diane writes:

"I need advice on how to handle the first overnight separation from my 15-month-old son.  My former employer imploded a month ago, so I am starting a new business which will allow me to set my own hours.  The catch is that I need to make a ton of contacts in short order,  so I'm going to a conference in late April that will take me away from home four full days and nights. 

Yikes!  We've never done this before.  DH is on board, and since he's an amazing caregiver already  -- we trade off almost seamlessly -- it won't be a total abandonment.  And for the three weekdays, my son will continue to go to the daycare he knows and loves.  He's not especially clingy, as a rule, since it's a center and he sees a lot of caregivers coming and going.  But I'm worried about bedtime.  We do bath, jammies, story, and then a little dance with Dada to the same song every night, and then... wince.... I nurse him down.  What should we do now, try a bottle at that point before I leave, to see if he'll buy it, or wait till I'm no longer in the house and he has no choice?  He will take a bottle from his dad  in the middle of the night sometimes, which is my assbackward way of trying to nightwean.   And should I try to leave my clothes nearby, for the scent, or will that just taunt him with my absence?

I also wonder about telling him in advance that I'm going away, and phone calls in my absence.  What can a 15-month old process, in your and your readers' opinon?   Should we make a big deal before I leave, show him the suitcase, etc, so he doesn't just think I've disappeared for no reason?  And when I phone in, should we put him on the line, or will that just make him cry harder?  He doesn't talk much yet beyond the standard "mama", "dada", "book", etc, although the one standout is "gargoyle" -- we have one in the garden, and he's bonded with it and asks to be walked outside to see it every day.   What should I consider to ease this transition for us all?"

Congratulations on starting a new business! I hope the conference brings you the exact number of clients you can handle. You might also want to join Women For Hire as another place to network, with the added bonus that you can do it in your pajamas.

Before I start with the actual question, I’m going to reiterate that nursing to sleep is not a problem. How could a surefire way of getting your kid to sleep easily and with positive associations be a bad thing? The only reason it’s bad in this case is that you “got caught” by having to not be there for a few days. So don’t think you did anything bad by nursing to sleep—the problem is the coming up with an alternative, not the nursing itself.

OK, now on to the question. I think you should do a test run ASAP to see if he’ll go to sleep easily with your husband. To do this, make sure you leave the house at bedtime, or else it will most probably not go well. If your son knows you’re in the house and aren’t nursing him to sleep, he’s going to be angry and flummoxed. If you’re not there, he’ll just do whatever he’s going to do with his dad.

Bear in mind that he may not take a bottle from your husband, but that doesn’t mean he won’t go to sleep with him. At a little under a year my first son stopped taking a bottle from my husband, and would just allow himself to be rocked to sleep. My second son never takes a bottle (except from our babysitter every once in awhile), but my husband rubs his back and sings and our son falls asleep easily with him. So keep in mind that going to sleep with your husband is the goal, not specifically taking a bottle to go to sleep. (I could go into a whole musing/rant about how oftentimes the non-nursing partner has a whole bag of tricks the nursing moms don’t ever develop, but that would triple the length of this post, so I’ll save it for later.)

[If anyone reading this is thinking, “This could be me in a few months. I love nursing my baby to sleep, but how do I make sure I don’t get hosed if I have to be gone at bedtime sometimes?”, if your baby already takes a bottle, it shouldn’t be that difficult a process. As soon as the nursing is well established (you’ll know when you’re ready), have your partner take bedtime duty while you leave the house (go read a magazine or have a decaf latte, or both at the same time). One of three things will happen: the baby will accept a bottle during the part in which you normally nurse, the baby will refuse a bottle but will be rocked to sleep by your partner, or the baby will refuse a bottle and refuse to go to sleep by rocking and will be pissed off. If one of the first two things happens, you’re home free. Just make sure you go out once or twice a month to keep your partner and baby in practice (hello, book club). If your baby won’t go to sleep with your partner, go back to the way it was and try again in another week or two. Your baby will be less likely to accept a different bedtime scenario while teething or sick or right before a developmental leap, so don’t be disheartened if you try during one of those times and it doesn’t go well.

One of the things that will probably help is to develop a solid bedtime routine. If the routine is extremely consistent, then eventually it won’t matter who’s doing it or where it’s being done. So you or your partner or your mother or a babysitter will be able to follow all the steps in the right order to get your baby to sleep, and you’ll also be able to go on vacation with your baby easily because if you do the steps you know your baby will go to sleep.]

At any rate, try it out as soon as you can to see what happens. If your son goes down easily with your husband, then your problem is solved. Just do it once or maybe twice again before you go away so that it becomes normal. If it doesn’t work out, at least you know and can work on it in the next 10 days. (By “work on it” I mean try to figure out at which point the routine went south, then try to ease past that point by either trying to duplicate the regular routine even more precisely or by changing it a little so your son isn't insulted by the attempted substitution.)

While you’re actually gone, your husband should go back into that newborn “By Any Means Necessary” mode. Try the regular routine, but if it isn’t working, he should feel free to co-sleep or do whatever he needs to do to get your son (and himself) to sleep. A few days of that isn’t going to derail your normal routine once you’re back.

At 15 months kids have far more receptive language than they do speech. ("Gargoyle." Heh.) So I think you should tell your son about your trip for at least a few days before you leave. There’s probably some aspect of it that will especially catch his attention, and that’s what you can focus on. My bet is that he’ll be focused on and excited about your mode of transportation, so you can keep talking about how Mommy’s going away on an airplane/train/cruise ship/whatever, and that he and Daddy are going to have a special time together just the two of them. He’ll probably be so taken with the transportation that he’ll be excited that you get to go. He'll probably even want to help you pack.

Play it by ear on the phone calls. Call him the first night and see how it goes. If he seems upset by the calls, then consider not calling again. 15 months is such an active, busy age (and not near any typical separation anxiety stages) that he’ll probably be happy to “talk” to you but not be upset about it, as long as he’s with your husband.

My sneaking suspicion is that since your husband takes so much care of your son already, your son isn’t going to be very tipped over by your absence until near the end of your trip. (I also think that if it were me, I might feel worse about having my baby not be upset by my absence!) I’m hoping any other traveling parents can share experiences and anything that makes being gone a little easier. Good luck with the trip!