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Toddler cries when mother leaves her with her grandmother

Photo of Dr. Patrick J. McGrath
Dr. Pat

By Patrick J. McGrath, OC, PhD, FRSC


My good friend has a granddaughter of 16 months. The child is very attached to her mother and the last time she was with her grandmother, she cried for the entire three hours. My friend is not the most comfortable with babies and this experience has made it very difficult for her. She doesn't know what to do. She really wants to spend time with her granddaughter. What can I suggest?

Dr. Pat responds:

The first thing to do is to make sure that your suggestions are welcome. You may do more good by just listening to her and being supportive. If you do make suggestions, she may not be able or willing to take your suggestions. The mom may not be interested in making the changes needed to help your friend. Some moms prefer that they give all of the caregiving. However, most appreciate a break.

If the granddaughter was not ill or especially hungry, then her behaviour is probably due to two factors:

  • She likely has not been away from her mother very much.
  • She may have a difficult or "slow to warm up" temperament.

If the mom and toddler have not been apart much, it would be better for everyone for her to have small separations at first. Learning to separate from mom is an important skill to learn. But at 16 months, it is not a big problem if she cannot. Mom may find it quite tiring though if no one else can take care of the little one.

They might try:

  • visiting in the child's home while mom is there and getting comfortable with the child
  • holding the baby and helping in the caregiving in the child's home
  • mom leaving home for short periods of time (10 to 20 minutes)
  • brief separations from mom when outside the child's home

Young children with a difficult temperament find adapting to any change a challenge. These children fuss more, seem to be unhappy fairly often, and are upset by any change.

Children who are slow to warm up are fine once they get used to people. Temperament seems to be a biological trait but it is influenced by learning.

Crying for hours in a 16-month-old suggests she was not able to calm herself. She may have been having a temper tantrum, or she may have been scared when she started crying. She may have become worked up and then it just continued.

Dealing with fussy toddlers is challenging and requires patience. Sometimes one thing will work. At another time something else works. A good strategy is to see how mom calms the child. Imitating mom's methods may make sense.

If the child has a favourite teddy bear or toy, this should be with her to help her self-soothe. Similarly, if she has a favourite video, this may help her relax.

One frequent problem is over-stimulating a child when trying to calm them. Being calm, soothing and gently rocking the child is often more helpful than incessant bouncing or loud attempts to distract. Have only a few desirable toys around. Try to keep the environment quiet.

It is a good idea for children to get used to caregivers other than mom. It reduces the burden on mom. It increases the child's skills and self-confidence. And it is a good way to get to know grandma.

Patrick J. McGrath OC, PhD, FRSC is a clinical psychologist and a researcher. He is Professor of Psychology, Pediatrics, and Psychiatry at Dalhousie University and Vice President - Research at IWK Health Centre in Halifax. He is also the CEO of the Strongest Families Institute, which provides mental health care to families across Canada.

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Dr. Pat will respond to as many letters as possible with evidence-based answers. We hope that the column will be interesting and helpful for readers; however, Dr. Pat cannot provide health care through the column. Please contact a physician or other registered health care professional to provide health care guidance or advice.