Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Staying Connected While Separated from Your Child

By Taryn Barrette, RD
Though far from an ideal situation, it is becoming more common for caregivers to have career or other obligations that keep them separated from their children for extended periods of time. Whether you are a grandparent living 3000 miles from your granddaughter, a member of the armed forces stationed overseas, or a parent who is required to take frequent business trips, you know the pain that comes from being absent during your child’s day-to-day growth and development. You may worry that you’ll miss some of your child’s most important milestones (like sitting up, walking, talking, or enjoying storybooks) even if you are away for only short periods of time. It is normal to want to be with your growing child and to feel upset by your absence. The good news is that there are ways that you can continue to stay connected to your child during these pivotal times despite being many miles away!

Technology and the Virtual “You”

When you can’t physically be with your child, the second best option is to be there virtually. Services like Skype, Google video chat, and Facebook offer options to video chat from a distance. Video chats allow you to see your baby and for your baby to see and hear you in real time, allowing for “face-to-face” interaction. While adding video may not seem very different from a phone conversation, babies are drawn to visually stimulating images. That means that being able to see his dad or grandma’s face is far more engaging for a baby who can't understand where the voice on the phone is coming from. Toddlers and preschoolers may be more interested in the phone, but they can be difficult to understand. When you can read your child's facial expressions and pick up on subtle cues you see through video, the conversation can be more rewarding for you as well as your child.

If you don’t have access to video, talking to your child on the phone is still a worthwhile option. Just be prepared that you may not have much of a conversation until the child is much older. You might want to try using the phone to sing to your baby or tell a story. Make sure that your child has a picture of you nearby so that your child can make a connection between the voice on the phone and your face.

Sending notes and small gifts can be fun for you and your child. Cards and care packages are exciting for older children and having a photo album or special trinket that your child can hold will remind him of special moments with his long-distance parent or other family member.

Reading To Your Distant Child

Knowing that reading to your child has profound benefits for your child, consider using a video chat service to read to your child. You might need 2 copies of the same book so that you can see the pages as your child sees them. Many classic children’s books can be obtained in paperback for very little money. For those of you who want something a little fancier, we found an organization that offers a way for you to record a video of yourself as you read. A Story Before Bed allows you to purchase a book from their online library and then record yourself reading that book (through the web camera on your computer or mobile device). According to their website, the company is in about half-way through a campaign to donate 250,000 free bedtime stories to military families who have a loved one stationed overseas. There may be other companies that do the same thing.

Helping Your Child Understand More About Your Trip

Traveling is an abstract idea for young children. You can help make the concept more concrete for them by pinpointing your location on a map (on paper or online). If your trip includes multiple destinations, you can use a globe or a large map tacked to the wall to help your child trace the route you are taking directly onto the map. You also might have your child “count down the days” until you return by crossing the days off a calendar or removing items from a bowl containing the same number of objects as the number of days you will be gone. For example, the bowl would have 7 rocks or bean bags if you were going to be gone for a week.

These are just a few ideas to help make necessary separations easier. We’re sure that many of you have discovered other great ways to foster a long-distance relationship with your child. If you have any ideas you would like to share, we would love to hear from you!

Sources and Further Reading:

1. Schachman, K. Online Fathering: The Experience of First-Time Fatherhood in Combat-Deployed Troops. Nursing Research. 2010. 59:1; 11-17.

2. Faure, M., Richardson, A. Baby Sense. New York, NY: Citadel Press, 2006.


  1. What a great post! I will share with my spouse who travels frequently to attend conferences. I think both he and son will enjoy your idea about reading a book over the phone/video.

  2. When I travel, my husband always sends me a picture of the kids on my cell phone in the morning. It's nice to wake up and see their faces and I can look at any time and as many times as I want. Also, now that my daughter is older (she's 3), I always bring her a postcard and when I get home, we talk about where I went and how I got there.