Dr. Wendy Walsh: I'll never forget the first time that my toddler burst into the kitchen, crying over a boo-boo -- and ran straight into her nanny's arms, when ten more steps would have gotten her to me. In an instant, I felt flashes of jealousy and shame: Was I being a good enough mother? Does she love her nanny more than me? It was a confusing moment, but because I have a Ph.D. in clinical psychology, it lasted only as long as my brain needed to retrieve the necessary data on attachment theory. Children can and should form multiple consistent attachments with caregivers, to help them feel loved and develop a repertoire of relating styles.
But similar questions about nanny/child attachments -- probably spurred by age-old mommy guilt -- continue to crop up when I speak to parenting groups. When one's tiny bundle of love seems to have goo-goo eyes for a nonbiological caregiver, it can bring up some confusing feelings.
Children can form multiple attachments and have "love affairs" with parents, kinfolk and caregivers alike. In fact, our amazing human species grew so strong exactly because of elaborate networks of "alloparents" -- a.k.a. aunties, friends, grandmothers and other caregivers who supported mom while she was off gathering food for the clan. (Yes, even hunter-gatherer mothers worked outside the home -- about twenty to thirty hours a week.) Some anthropologists speculate that one reason that menopause evolved was to create nonfertile females filled with nurturing energy, to help with the babies of others. I call it the "grandmother gene".
In her new book "Mothers and Others," UC Davis professor Sarah Blaffer Hrdy makes the case that it is indeed this social network of "alloparents" that gives children more opportunities to learn empathy and feel secure.
So when baby prefers the sitter, feel relieved. And please squash any urge to release your nanny from her employment. The key to healthy emotional development is consistency of care; if your nanny is winning the love of your baby, then she's probably doing a great job -- and firing her could cause an attachment injury to your little one.
You don't have to compete with your nanny. She is your partner. Trust me: Babies always know who their mother is. Hold your baby often, sing, rock and bathe him or her. And feel grateful that you have someone to share in the hard work of child-rearing.