Infants and toddlers, ages 0 to 3, are exploring their world physically, emotionally and mentally. It's a very busy time for development! They are testing their environment to see if they are safe, if their needs will be met, and if they can trust enough to attach to their caregivers. As they slowly become aware of the world outside of themselves, they begin to understand that objects and people can go away - and then reappear. How wonderful! Their daily caregiver(s) will quickly become the most important part of their lives. So how, if you are thousands of miles away, can you, too, become an important part of their universe?
Scents and sounds are very important in the first couple of years.
Take an old T-shirt (or two) that are nice and soft and have a life-size photo of your face printed on it. Sleep in the shirt for several nights and, without laundering, pull it over a pillow or large stuffed animal. Leave behind samples of anything you routinely use that have a scent - deodorant, after-shave, perfume - and have the at-home parent/guardian dab a LITTLE bit onto the shirt from time to time. The advantage of printing two shirts is that you can take one with you to wear and send back home as a replacement if the first one gets so dirty that it needs to be laundered. Let this be "Huggy Daddy" or "Huggy Mommy" and use it as a comfort object for the baby. (Note: Infants should not sleep with a pillow, but it could be laid down with them and removed before they fall asleep.) Take "Huggy" on car trips and errands, and most of all hold it with the infant while listening to recordings or watching videos of the absent parent.
Before leaving (and while away if you have the right equipment), tape yourself reading books, telling stories (especially real or nearly real ones that star the baby - use his/her name a lot), singing songs, almost anything. If possible, make videos in advance or use a web cam from post - the at-home parent can hold the same book to 'read' along with you. (Slightly older kids will be able to play these for themselves and read along.) For really young babies, a recording of your heartbeat would be nice.
If there are older siblings in the family, include them in some, but not all, of the stories you tell and/or books you read. There should be a mix of things that are suitable for the whole family - and some that are special for each child. Young and maybe not-so-young children will probably want their own "Huggy" too. For those who have outgrown stuffed animals (at least in public), have the child trace an outline of the about-to-leave parent on a large sheet of paper. Draw in the face or paste on a photo, color in the clothes and mount it on the wall. (If you want a professionally produced custom standup, just enter "Flat Daddy" in Google and be prepared to pay $125-150 for a life size image.)
In addition to the videos, web cam performances and the photo on Huggy, you should send your child photos or drawings of yourself doing various everyday activities - eating, cleaning up dishes or other housework, typing at your computer, watching TV, going for a walk. You can write an explanation on the back of drawings and invite your child to send back pictures for which the at-home parent writes the explanation (saves a lot of guesswork on your part!). Use the video or web cam to record games of "peek-a-boo" - this favorite game of babies helps to reinforce the idea that you go away but come back.
When you return home, hold the baby next to bare skin as much as possible and feed, change, and bathe them. Please be sensitive to the fact that it may be hard for the at-home parent to share or relinquish these duties. It may be necessary to do them in parallel until the infant accepts you (and the more experienced parent trusts your skills).
Ask the other parent to take a photo of the baby on/about the same day each month, posed next to the same large toy. This will give you a sense of how much growth is taking place. In return, send a tracing of your hand or foot and have the toddler's hand or foot traced inside. This will remind your child of how big you are.
If you wear glasses, leave an old pair (remove the lenses) for the toddler to play with - along with old shoes, hats, clothes (good with young children, too) for dress up. Be sure that any doll families in your home have a figure for your role.
Brace yourself for alternating bouts of aloofness/shyness and clinginess when you come home. Kids tend to go for extremes! Keep in mind that when you first come home on R&R, you are likely to sleep a lot during the day but may have trouble sleeping at night. Don't expect to fit right back into the family routine immediately but give yourself - and your family - a little time to re-adjust. The at-home parent/guardian needs to know that the child(ren)'s behavior will probably regress and everyone will be cranky when you leave after each R&R, but spending time with your loved ones is essential - for everyone.
Information provided by the Family Liaison Office
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