Q&A: clingy four-month-old

Joanne writes:

"My question concerns my wonderful daughter who is four monthsold.  She's got a great temperment, not fussy, sleeps well at night (in a co-sleeper), hardly cries and smiles all the time.  The only thing is she is very needy of my attention.  I have to carry her all the time and can't leave her alone.  I can't even e-mail at my desk while she's on the floor next to me.  She NEEDS me close by interacting.
She has a good bouncy chair that I thought she would like, but the moment I place her on it, she gives me this incredulous hairy eyeball and starts to fuss and cry out.  I realize I shouldn't be leaving her alone anyway.  But even leaving her for short spurts (loading laundry, brushing teeth) causes her grief. 

Now here's the kicker.  I AM able to leave her for longer periods if I place her in front of the tv (I know!).  But lately I've been tuning into cooking shows or talk shows.  I hate to do the tv thing to her but it's the only way to get anything done around here, or to fix my lunch!

I'm sick of all the older folks in my life telling me that I'll "spoil" her by picking her up so much.  I know this won't happen, but sometimes I start to second guess how much I'm holding her and if indeed I am spoiling her.  The "What to expect" book (I know it's not your favourite) says at this age she should have independant play for a few mins. 

I realize I cannot force her to separate from me.  But are there gentle ways of nurturing independance?  I play peek-a-boo every day to enhance object permanence awareness...I don't think she's a shy child per se.  She loves the mommy and baby programs we attend and becomes nicely distracted by everyone and especially the other babies. I think she's just social and likes to be interacting with me or her father here at home.  Like I said, I'm starting to confuse myself a bit and would love your take on this."

She's normal. Normal, normal, normal, normal.

Babies like (and remember that at this age wants and needs are the same) to be with their primary caregivers as much as possible. It's how they feel normal. It's how they survive infancy. A baby who allowed herself to be put down and left alone was a baby who got eaten by coyotes or who froze to death on the cave floor. Just because there aren't any coyotes in your heated home doesn't mean the same instincts aren't there still in our human programming.

"Should" have independent play for a few minutes, I really don't know about. "Could" is more like it. I've known some babies who could play alone for a few minutes at that age. But I think it's ridiculous to expect every (or even most) babies to. My guess is that it's more common for second or later babies to be content "alone" at that age, and only because there's more general noise in the house than for first children. (Which is why she's content when the TV is on. If you could borrow a 3-year-old, she'd be content without you for even longer.)

If you were back in the tribal days, you'd strap her to your back and go about your daily work, which would include interacting with plenty of other adults, and by the time you started wondering "Why does she need to be strapped to me all the time?!" she'd be ready to crawl and would be struggling to get down.

So my advice is threefold:

1) Lower your expectations. You have a child who loves to be with you, and in a year she will be running away from you, and in 13 years she won't want to be seen with you. She's normal, you're normal, and as long as you can feed yourself and go to the bathroom you're in an appropriate (albeit annoying) stage.

2) Get a sling/Ergo/mei tai/wrap and strap her in. Wear her around as you put in laundry, vacuum, fix a sandwich, e-mail, etc. Talk to her and explain what you're doing while you're doing it, and she'll surprise you with how much she understands. Your arms won't hurt, and she'll be happier in general than with the put down/pick up routine.

3) Smile and nod. "Oooh! Thanks for the advice. I hadn't considered that before." Then do what you want to do anyway.

This too will pass. She sounds very attached to you, which is excellent. If you can accept not getting much done right now, it will change in the next few months. Object permanence will kick in at the normal time (around 9 months or so), and any effort you make to push her into independence will probably backfire. The best way to encourage independence is to give her as much closeness as she wants, so she gets her fill and can separate when she's ready.

I know it doesn't feel like it (I sometimes felt ready to jump out of my skin at this stage) but you're doing so well, and things are progressing exactly the way they're supposed to. To ease your own sense of being touched out, do a hand-off as soon as your husband gets home and just do other stuff for an hour, if possible. It'll be good for all of you.

(FWIW, both of mine at that age hated the bouncy seat like it was electrified, but now I could leave the apartment after breakfast and come back for lunch and neither of them would have noticed I was gone. She will definitely learn to play independently.)