When Time Away from Baby Can’t be Avoided …


I’m a daycare provider and also a mother of three. My youngest child is five weeks old. I must be hospitalized for one week for radiation treatment for cancer within the month. Will my baby still know me after a week? She will be with Dad and Grandma and her siblings. Is this the way parents feel when they leave their babies with me for daily childcare? What a fabulous service you provide. I found your site at 11:30 p.m. while rocking my fussy newborn. I was looking up colic. At 5 weeks, she’s right on target. I certainly hope it does peak at 6 weeks. I’m tired. Thanks for the middle of the night info. As she’s finally asleep, I’m off to bed. G’night.
Nancy Cefalu – Mom and Day Care Provider – Granite Bay, California

Dr. Greene's Answer

Nancy, I am so sorry to hear about your cancer. What a trying time this must be for you! You sound like a truly beautiful person.

For over four months now (perhaps even longer) your little daughter has been listening attentively to the sound of your voice. She has heard you laugh; she has heard you cry. Even when your voice was silent, she has been comforted by the beating of your heart. From the day she was born, Nancy, she was able to distinguish your voice from every other voice in the world.

Dr. Anthony DeCasper at the University of North Carolina conducted a fascinating series of investigations. Recognizing that newborns have excellent control of their mouths, he thought they might be able to express their preferences by altering their sucking tempo. Dr. DeCasper placed a nipple in the mouth of one- and two-day-old infants, and fitted each baby with padded earphones. The nipple was attached to a device that automatically played different recordings at different sucking rates. Infants who sucked at a high rate would hear a recording of their mother’s voice, and when they sucked at a low rate they would hear another woman’s voice. Eleven out of twelve babies learned to suck at the high rate to hear their mother’s voice. To be sure that this was not just a tempo preference, the connections were reversed. The infants quickly began sucking at a lower rate to hear their mother. This shows that as early as the first days of life, infants recognize their mother, have a preference for her, and are willing to work to get to hear her voice.

To see if babies have memory of what they hear before birth, Dr. DeCasper conducted a subsequent series of studies. First, he recorded sixteen mothers while each read both The Cat in the Hat and The King, the Mice, and the Cheese. During the last six-and-a-half weeks of pregnancy, each mother read aloud only one of these stories to her unborn child, twice each day. Each baby had a total of about five hours of listening to one story spread over about a month-and-a-half. When they were three days old, Dr. DeCasper gave each baby the option of hearing his or her mother read either story using sucking tempo to trigger the recordings. Fifteen out of sixteen babies selected the story their mother had read to them. Babies remember what they hear, and like to hear the same story again and again.

An infant’s sense of smell is even more highly developed. Aiden McFarlane, of Oxford, showed that by six days of age babies turn far more often to their mothers breast pad than to a clean breast pad or the breast pad of another mother. This continued even when the locations where changed every minute. To his surprise, when the mother’s breast milk was placed on an unworn breast pad, rather than an actual pad worn by the mother, the babies showed no preference. Babies respond to the smell of the mother herself, not necessarily to the smell of the milk.

From the moment your daughter was born, she began to memorize your face. She has studied your smiles and your tears. She loves you. You are vividly imprinted in all of her senses. This is a deep memory she will carry unconsciously every day of her life. She can not possibly forget you during your week in the hospital. There are, however, some things you can do to continue nurturing your unique bond while you are apart:

  • Make a tape recording of your voice reading or singing to your baby. Have her dad or grandma play it for her regularly while you are gone.
  • The week before you are going to go to the hospital, wear soft, cuddly night clothes. Do not launder them! Have her dad or grandma place your worn clothing in the crib with your daughter when she sleeps.
  • Take videos of you, talking to your daughter. Close-ups of your face are best. When her dad or grandma play the videos for your daughter, she will get to see your face and hear your voice, both vivid reminders of the most important person in her life.

I know this time apart will be difficult for you. To make it a little bit easier, try taking reminders of her with you to the hospital — a pair of her worn and not yet laundered night clothes, a recording of her crying and cooing, and a video tape of her first few weeks would be appropriate. Not only will these things remind you of her, but the exchange of items will serve as a symbolic link between you.

When she first sees you again she may be standoffish. This would not be a sign that she has forgotten you, but is one way she has of expressing how much she missed you. Be warmly available to her, but not intrusive. Let her draw you in.

Nancy, you are so insightful! From the moment the umbilical cord is cut, a process of separation begins. It proceeds, sometimes slowly and sometimes abruptly. Whenever mothers and babies must be apart in those early months, whether due to a hospitalization or a return to work, the separation is felt particularly poignantly. Many mothers do feel this pain when they drop off their children each day. They shouldn’t be surprised if their children act a bit standoffish when they return, and they may want to try some of the same things I’ve mentioned above. Our children steal our hearts, and each separation reminds us of how precious this special bond is.

Please write back after your hospital stay is over, and let me know how you are doing. In the meantime, if there is anything else I can do for you, please let me know.

Medical Review on: February 06, 2008
About the Author
Photo of Alan Greene MD
Dr. Greene is a practicing physician, author, national and international TEDx speaker, and global health advocate. He is a graduate of Princeton University and University of California San Francisco.
Get Dr. Greene's Wellness RecommendationsSignup now to get Dr. Greene's healing philosophy, insight into medical trends, parenting tips, seasonal highlights, and health news delivered to your inbox every month.
No comments yet. Start the conversation!
Add your comment