You’re Not My Mommy

Raising babies with respect begins with perceiving them as competent, aware individuals rather than cute blobs that are mindless or “half-baked” (no joke — a psychologist used that descriptor in her Psychology Today column).  Perceiving babies as whole people is by far the most rewarding, successful parenting path and is finally now research-proven. Yes, it can be less convenient at times, because it requires us to be considerate of our baby’s human point of view. We can’t connect with our baby as a person while also using tricks, distractions, and other quick-fixes to control her moods, crying, and sleep. So we’re limited to relationship building practices like honesty and real listening. 

Parents and caregivers have asked me in emails over the years how to help babies accept the care of a spouse, grandparent or other relative, or professional caregiver.  Here are my responses to some of the questions I’ve received on this topic.

Why might a baby cry in the arms of someone other than the primary caregiver?

For me, the question would be: Why wouldn’t a baby cry in the arms of someone other than the primary caregiver? Consider this: Babies are as present and aware as you or me. Even more so, in fact,according to the recent scientific findings of psychologists Alison Gopnik, Paul Bloom, and several others on the forefront of infant brain research. Imagine you are extremely open, absorbent, and the many wonders of life “on the outside” are brand new to you.  The stimulation and novelty inherent in even the most peaceful setting can be overwhelming, especially when you are tired, hungry, or otherwise uncomfortable, as babies often are. You feel anchored in the comfort of the familiar – consistent, responsive caregivers and a daily routine you can depend on. Wouldn’t you feel at least a little uneasy in the arms of someone you don’t know that well?

How can parents help babies get used to others?

As slowly and gradually as possible with a lot of verbal preparation and respectful communication. Get into the habit of talking to your baby. Babies are ready to learn language from birth. Will they understand every word? Probably not, but infants comprehend far more than they are given credit for because, again, they are tuned in at full volume, especially when their primary caregivers are speaking. Slowly, simply inform your baby, “Today you will meet Ann, a new caregiver. This first time she comes over, she will spend some time watching how I change your diaper. She will sit with me while I watch you play.” Or, “Soon grandpa will come to our house. He will want to hold you. We will wait for you to let us know you are ready. I’ll stay close by if you need me.”

Understandably, many will find the idea of talking to babies in this manner preposterous. I’m sure I’d have felt that way had I not been inspired to try it (by infant specialist Magda Gerber). Now, like the thousands of others who have taken this leap of faith, I can say with certainty that honest verbal communication with babies works. (The naysayers have one thing in common: contempt prior to investigation. They haven’t given it a try.)

What if baby cries in the arms of another primary caregiver (i.e., baby always cries for Dad but not Mom)? What can partners do in this situation?

As with all crying, I would perceive it as communication and remain as calm and as open as possible so that you can hear what your baby is saying rather than rushing to judge or fix it. Consider first that the baby might have a need that only the one parent can fill (like breastfeeding). But let’s say Mom needs a trip to the bathroom or a drink of water. Dad might then acknowledge, “Sounds like you’re saying you want milk. Mom will be back in a minute to give you some. I know. I hear you. It’s really hard to wait. We’ll wait together.”

If a biological need for Mom has been ruled out, calmly acknowledge, “Mommy was holding you and now I am. You sound very upset.” Allow your baby to express herself while you consider why she cries. “Hmmm…do you need to burp? Or maybe your mouth is hurting? Here are a couple of teethers that might help. Would you like to choose one?” Remind yourself that remaining calm is crucial because, again, babies are ultra-aware. They are unnerved by our anxiety, and it can make them cry even more. Also, know that the message you are giving your baby in these typical and safe, albeit less than ideal, situations is extremely positive: It’s okay to express yourself with Dad. He wants to hear your feelings. He doesn’t panic. He doesn’t even take it personally when he’s not your top choice. Believe it or not, this is bonding. So I recommend seizing, even welcoming these opportunities.

What would you advise parents or caregivers in this situation to absolutely NOT do? I advise parents and caregivers to work at not fearing crying, which means not trying to stifle the child’s feelings by jiggling, bouncing, shushing, overfeeding, etc. Crying is one of the few ways babies can communicate their thoughts and emotions. We must always respond, but only rarely does it signal a dire emergency. Calmly accepting and acknowledging our baby’s occasional displeasure (like when she seems to want Mom while Dad or another caregiver is caring for her) will foster an honest, trusting adult-child relationship and nurture emotional health.

For more about respectful care…

Entering Into a Conversation With Your Baby
, and RIE From the Start – 2 Simple Things You Can Do to Support Baby  by Lisa Sunbury, Regarding Baby

Magda Gerber’s website and books, Your Self-Confident Baby and Dear Parent: Caring for Infants With Respect

7 Reasons to Calm Down About Babies Crying

My book, Elevating Child Care: A Guide to Respectful Parenting
(Photo by thejbird on Flickr)


Please share your comments and questions. I read them all and respond to as many as time will allow.

  1. What to say to an overly excited grand parent who wants to grab a baby without hurting their feelings too much?

    1. I’d say that you imagine the baby would love to be held by grandma, but you’ve noticed he or she needs a moment or two to get comfortable

  2. I have to have some treatment that will leave me radioactive when I leave the hospital . I will not be allowed to hug or cuddle with me 11 month old baby . I am really worried that she will feel rejected me 🙁 I was thinking I might just stay away altogether till I can hold her again . Do you have any tips to help ?

    1. Hi Kat – I would definitely not stay away. Before you go to the hospital, tell your baby what will happen in simple terms…and how will go when you return. Here’s a post that might be very helpful to you: Then, when she wants you to hold her and you can’t, calmly accept her feelings. “I hear how much you want me to hold you! I am sorry that I can’t right now.” Speak to her strength. Don’t be pitying. It is very healthy for her to express her frustration and any other feelings she might have. This experience will bond you even further. So, please don’t worry!

  3. When I saw the title I was expecting to read an article about toddlers saying that to their mothers and how to deal with it respectfully! 🙂

  4. When my son was an infant, he did not show a preference for anyone. He was content no matter what adult he was with, as long as his needs were met. It was only as he approached 12 months that he seemed to care if me or my husband were taking care of him.
    Now grandparents are another topic: our son didn’t “remember” them (they live a long distance away), and grandmas were hurt and offended when he didn’t go running to them to give them a big hug at 1 or 2 years of age! So my husband and I got the guilt trip from them that we weren’t visiting enough. Now at almost 3 years old, he DOES go running to them with hugs and kisses. Different generations, different expectations, different views of child-raising.

  5. What about a toddler that seems to get angry or yell at the sitter. He is very strong willed and she is quiet and not very assertive. He seems to steam roll her and yell at her when she talks or tries to play with him. He is great with his school teachers in a more structured environment as well as family.

  6. Thanks very much for this post. I also wonder how to apply these principles to toddlers. My son is 2.5, and we have had the same nanny 2-3 days a week since he was 8 months old. She is wonderful and he has always done great with her. But recently he has been resistant to her when I am around. He pushes her away, says “No!,” and tries to insist that I do things for him, such as getting him dressed. He has also begun to resist leaving the apartment with her when I am home. Once they are on their own together, they do fine. What can I do in these situations? I am not only concerned for him, but also for our nanny because this behavior is a bit embarrassing for us both!

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