How To Take Mom Time or Nurse Baby without Closing Door on Toddler

Dr. Laura,
My DD1 is 2.5 and wants to be around me ALL the time. Usually this is fine, but occasionally I need some space. I try to use positive discipline with her (building my relationship with her, validating her feelings, modeling respectful behavior, setting limits firmly but expressing empathy for her feelings) so I'm torn about whether to close a door when I need some space- it feels inconsistent with my efforts to respect her feelings, as she gets very upset by the door closing. Two of the situations happening very frequently are these:

1. Putting the baby down for a nap: My baby is old enough that she no longer will drift off easily, and she no longer naps well in a wrap...she really does best if I nurse and rock her for 10 minutes quietly and then lay her down. I've talked to DD1 about it ("I know it is hard sometimes when mama needs to help DD2 nap, and here are some things you can do during those 10 minutes, and when mama is done, we can have some special mama-daughter playtime"), I talk about it ahead of time so she can anticipate it, I try to set her up with a fun, engrossing activity that is special, but no matter what I do, she always follows me up into the nursery when I'm rocking the baby to sleep and talks loudly.

I've told her she can be in the room with us if she is quiet ("here is a book you may quietly read next to us"), but she needs to go to her room or the livingroom if she is loud. She continues to loudly hang out in the nursery and the baby rouses and gets agitated and I find myself struggling and sometimes losing my cool. Usually I'll gently but firmly set a limit with DD1 and guide her back to the fun activity (this tends to take a LONG time, its nearly impossible to do without the baby losing her latch and crying hysterically, and it doesn't work for long- DD1 comes back 30 seconds later, and I struggle until the baby manages to fall asleep despite the disruption, or I feel desperate).

When I feel desperate, I shut the door (this is much better for the baby but leaves DD1 crying outside the door feeling abandoned). Shutting the door doesn't feel gentle and doesn't seem to honor DD1's need for security. However, DD1's behavior is not respectful of the baby's need for sleep and she is not cooperating with the limits I've outlined that would allow her to stay in the room (i.e. she can be with us if she is quiet). I feel like most of the positive discipline resources I have read offer strategies that would work very well if I only had DD1 to care for, but don't full acknowledge how tough it is to patiently and empathetically set boundaries with your child when you are also trying to meet the needs of a crying baby. I know I'm not handling it well, and its clear from DD1's behavior that we are not making progress.,

2. "Mama time outs": DD1 doesn't want to let me take "mama time outs". (I don't do time-outs with her...if she needs it we do a "time-in") When I feel like I'm losing my cool, I really need a minute to myself, but DD1 can't handle being away from me and follows me and continues to engage in the behavior that is triggering my frustration. If I close the door, she cries and yells outside the door the whole time. Both of these scenarios make it harder than ever for me to pull myself together. I know that she just wants to be with me and feels scared when I am out of sight, and again, I don't like shutting doors as it feels inconsistent with the type of respectful approach I strive for. However, I'm not sure how to navigate this more gracefully when I'm feeling like I'm going to lose my temper, as I don't want to lash out at her in anger.

I'd love to hear your thoughts/ideas about this.

You're being very patient! It can be really tough when our kids NEED to be with us constantly. And you are completely right that it is a whole lot easier to stay patient when you have one child. Managing our older child while the baby is crying sends most of us over the edge.

And, of course, it is not unreasonable for your two year old to want to be with you. In fact, when we shut the door it triggers abandonment panic in even the most secure toddler. So I understand your worry.

I think the situation you're describing about putting the baby down for a nap happens in most homes. That's because even though a two or three year old really means it when she says she will play quietly while you put the baby to bed, she can't. Especially because you aren't just in another room for a short time. You're in another room WITH THE BABY, being all close and snuggly and loving. She may want to respect that and wait, but it just brings up all her infantile need to have you be all hers, or at least partly hers! Once she feels that need, you can't really control her coming to you. It's a survival instinct. What you can do, of course, is lessen the need.

I sometimes tell moms this is like telling their husband that they are just going to have a quickie with some other guy, and then they're all his, if he can just wait patiently. Doesn't really work!

But of course your baby deserves your full attention while you put her down for a nap. You've done a great job of trying to set your oldest up with a fun activity, but of course she always follows you into the baby's room and talks loudly. No activity is fun enough to keep her in another room. One solution for this would be an engrossing activity IN the baby's room. But of course a book is not engrossing enough.

Could you find some cds of books on tape that will rivet her? If she has headphones and can control the cd player, I think she would simply listen quietly, although at times she might laugh out loud. Of course, TV would work too, but then you're setting up a TV addiction and if that worked for you, you probably would not be writing to me. CDs are different, because they stimulate the imagination, just like when we read our child a book. I love Chinaberry Books as a source of books on cd, but I think you can probably find most any book you want on cd these days.

You can even tape yourself reading to your daughter, and then put it on an Ipod for her. That way she gets the connection with you at the same time. But kids often seem to prefer the professionally read books and seem less likely to interrupt you while they're listening to them, because it is less like having you read to them (when of course they are allowed to interrupt).

I want to add that this will work a lot better if BEFORE the baby's naptime you spend fifteen minutes with your older daughter, just "filling her cup" by pouring your attention and love into her. I realize that is probably when the baby is getting fussy so you may not be able to do a real "special time" and do whatever your older daughter wants. But a little loving roughhousing that gets her giggling will trigger her oxytocin and make her feel more connected and secure. That will help her not NEED you so much, so she can focus on the book on tape.

Your second situation, Mama Timeouts, is also universal -- at least among parents who have the mindfulness to notice when they are starting to lose it and to remove themselves from the situation. Good for you for taking yourself out of the situation before you start yelling. Have you spoken with your two year old about this so she understands what is happening? Otherwise, when you flee in the middle of an altercation, naturally she worries that you will never return! I realize she is only two, but maybe you could say something like this:

Sometimes Mommy gets upset, right? But I never want to yell at you or your sister. So when I feel upset, I will go to my Chill-Out spot so I can calm down. My chill-out spot is the bathroom. I need to go into the bathroom for just a minute when I am upset to splash water on my face so I can calm down. Do you want to practice with me? You might want to try this sometime, too. So you can watch me....Let's pretend I'm mad....Why would I be mad? Ok, let's pretend you throw your cup, ok? (Giggling to get her giggling) Good, pretend to throw it just like that. Ok, I love you but I am mad! Sometimes you can love someone and be mad at the same time, right? What should I do? Yell? No! I will go to my chill-out spot to calm down! Ok, so here is what I say to you and your sister..."I need to calm down...I am going to the bathroom...I will be right back..." Now I am walking to the bathroom. What will you do? Can you watch your sister for me? Or should we have a special basket of toys that you can play with, right over there?....What if you miss me? Could you sing a song for me right outside the door while I splash water on my face? Let's try it right now....

Of course, when she's in the heat of the moment, it might be hard for your two year old to simply sing a song outside the bathroom door. But this preparatory conversation makes it much more likely, and you can remind her, as you head for the bathroom, that you are going to calm down and if she misses you she can sing a song outside the bathroom. You could also have a little hourglass timer outside the bathroom that she could watch, so when the sand is almost through she knows you will come out. And many families use a little calm-down jar -- a plastic jar with sparkles in the water that is calming and mesmerizing for your child to look at.

The complication--I'm sure you've noticed! -- is your baby. If you're taking her with you into the bathroom, you're setting up the same situation as the nap, and it will be almost impossible for you two year old to wait patiently outside the door. So if that is the case -- meaning you can't safely leave them both -- then I would recommend that you don't even shut a door. Put some earplugs in a drawer by the kitchen sink, and when you need a moment to calm down, put in the earplugs and turn on the water and splash water on your face. Of course, you would still need to warn your daughter that you're in calming down mode and won't be able to talk to her for a few minutes. And you will still need the hourglass timer and calm-down jar, so that she has something to focus on instead of trying to get your attention. But you might find that for now it actually works better than shutting a door, since it won't trigger her abandonment panic. You might even keep a red hat in the drawer, so your daughter knows that while you have on the red hat, you are still calming down and can't talk.

Good luck, and please let me know how these strategies work!
Dr. Laura

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