Working from home with a baby or toddler is no picnic. Here’s how to make it more tolerable

Katherine Harmon Courage

THE WASHINGTON POST – Parenting during the pandemic has introduced new challenges for everyone – but especially for those who are trying to work from home alongside their kids.

But there is a subset of these parents who are not checking in on worksheet sessions or even (supposed to be) turning on yet another episode of “Paw Patrol”: those with kids under age two.

“It’s hard,” said Chief of Staff for Senator Thomas Carper Emily Spain who has a two-year-old and a five-year-old at home. “It’s unlike any challenge I’ve ever experienced in my life.”

Her husband owns a public affairs consulting business, so they have both been “working around-the-clock and adjusting to the new ‘abnormal,’” she said.

Between their jobs, it’s not possible for them to trade off chunks of time working and being the main caretaker.

Trying to work while caring for a very young child who cannot take care of themselves or play independently for any length of time is setting parents up for failure.

“There is no going dark – even for an hour at a time,” she said.

Their two-year-old, who would otherwise be with their nanny, can’t understand why her parents are there but often aren’t playing with her.

“You are – as a parent and a professional – in this really difficult spot, where you’re being forced to choose between two priorities,” Spain said. “And no one wants to feel like it’s a zero-sum game.”

Spain is not alone. Nearly 12 million United States (US) households have children zero to two years old, according to census data, and many of these now include parents who are trying to work from home without child-care help.

“The sad thing is people just think that they should be able to do it,” said paediatrician in Los Angeles and the author of The Happiest Baby on the Block Harvey Karp. “And it is the hardest thing.”

Clinical social worker specialising in child development and parent guidance in Washington Claire Lerner agreed. “It’s a totally impossible situation to be a [work-from-home] parent of a very young child who cannot be expected to take care of themselves in any shape or form or play independently for any length of time,” she said.

And that sets up families for failure. Many parents are used to being able to have 15, 30 or even 60 minutes of uninterrupted work time, and their jobs might require it. But with a child under two at home, that usually isn’t possible.

FIND SMALL SOLUTIONS

Although there might not be any way to get large blocks of uninterrupted work time with a baby or young toddler at home, there are ways to maximise kids’ good will and occupied attention.

Karp recommends spending spurts of focussed time with them as you can throughout the day – a tactic he refers to as “filling (their) meter.” This can help them be more content during other periods, paying time dividends for you.

He also suggests sprinkling in “easy wins” for them. “Toddlers are nonstop losers,” he said.

“They just want to win a few.” So to let them feel less discouraged, he said, play small games (such as moving items from one container to another) and let them win, or pretend to fall down when they playfully hit you with a pillow. “If you give your child 10 times of winning a day, they automatically want to behave better,” Karp said.

The key, Lerner noted, is to pick a sensory-rich activity that minimises intervention. She loves water-based ones, such as splashing or pouring with cups. (Keep an eye on your child, she said, but spread a shower curtain on the floor so “no matter how much they spill, it’s okay.”)

Save novel and engaging activities for when you will need to have your most focussed chunks of time.

When your attention is divided, it is especially important to make sure your child is going to be – and feel – safe. Lerner suggests considering a play yard.

“If that’s a safe, loving place with a lot of interesting objects,” it can be a great asset right now, she said. “You can’t expect an 18-month-old to understand: ‘You’re going to stay here while Mommy goes over here and talks on the phone.’ Your child might be distressed for a few minutes, but they’re not being harmed. . . . It’s much more loving to put them in a safe pack-and-play or crib instead of getting in a back-and-forth power struggle (with) them” trying to make them give you space otherwise.

This gets at one of Lerner’s key messages: “You can’t control your child,” she said. “You can’t make them not have a tantrum, not cry, not scream. What you can control is the situation. . . . If a parent doesn’t feel like they have control over a situation, that’s where things fall apart.”

TRY NEW APPROACHES, BUT MAINTAIN LIMITS

And things will, of course, fall apart sometimes. But one thing to try when things do get tense, Karp said, is reworking your communication style.

Rather than trying to reason with a baby or young toddler when they are upset, he suggested using your face, gestures and tone of voice to show them empathy instead. His prescription is threefold: talk in short phrases, use repetition and mirror their emotion (but reduced to about 33 per cent of their wattage).

“It’s exactly what you would expect from your best friend,” he said. “You want to help them get over their emotions so they can move onto the next thing.”

For toddlers who are starting to understand more language, you can also try “gossiping,” Karp said. Let your child overhear you talking to your partner, a friend on the telephone or a stuffed animal praising something great your child did – or noting a behaviour that could have been better.

And don’t forget to focus attention on your child when they behave well. This can be hard to do when time feels in such short supply and any moment a child is contented feels like a chance to write an overdue email. But, Karp said, positive attention is important.

“A child would rather be yelled at than ignored,” he said. And if they feel ignored, “they will end up misbehaving more just to be interacting with you.”

Even at a young age, children pick up on patterns of your attention and actions. As Karp notes: “They have to learn that crying doesn’t manipulate you.”

Attend to their important needs, but also help them start to learn what is important by adjusting your response based on the situation. Are they crying because they need to eat – or because they decided they “need” the phone you’re using?

In that vein, having predictable boundaries and expectations helps young children feel comfortable, Lerner said.

That can take some forethought – which many parents might not feel they have the reserves for right now. “Making the decision (about limits) is so important,” she said.

“You want to be able to say to yourself, ‘No matter what pushback I get from my children, I will stay the course and feel comfortable.’ “

For example, if you’ve decided it’s time to take a short break outside with your 13-month-old and they protest, acknowledge their feelings, but calmly proceed with the activity, Lerner said.

“If you approach it with clarity and empathy and calm, they are much better able to adapt – even when they are unhappy that you are unable to meet their every ‘need,’ ” she added.

MOVE EXPECTATIONS

Perhaps the most important takeaway for parents of young children right now is to calibrate expectations.

“It’s an unrealistic expectation that an 18-month-old is going to have any modicum of self-regulation,” Lerner said.

They cannot understand that their parent is on a work call and they need to play quietly for 15 minutes.

Even “most four- and five-year-olds have a hard time with that,” she said. So parents – and their employers – need to figure out a way to work around what is realistic.

It is also important to adjust for temperament. “The kids that are super easygoing by nature, … they’re better able to deal in moments like this,” she said.

“But there are other children who are wired to be more sensitive and thus more reactive. And they tend to be a little more clingy and have a harder time playing independently.”

The trick is to find the small things that can help get everyone through the day, parents included. And maybe that means introducing more screen time sooner than planned.

“You’re not turning their brains to mush,” Karp said. “Not every second has to be filled with 100 per cent, grade-A educational material. You’re just trying to get by here.”