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Helping Little Ones Cope With Divorce

More than 1 million children each year experience the divorce of their parents. And while you might think that babies would have an easier adjustment than older children, infants are often deeply affected by their parents' stress. If you're facing the strain of a separation or divorce, the following advice may help ease the transition for your child.

Anticipate your baby's reactions.

An infant can pick up on a parent's anxiety and preoccupation, becoming irritable, fearful, or aggressive. In addition, he may regress developmentally, or experience difficulty sleeping, gastrointestinal problems, or separation anxiety. The last (which usually begins at 6 to 8 months of age) can come on without any trauma, but is more likely with a loss such as a divorce. Signs include clinginess, crying as you disappear from view, and skittishness around strangers and unfamiliar places.

Respond to his needs.

While it may be difficult in the midst of your own distress, try to focus on your baby's feelings and needs. Ensure that his daily routine remains as normal as possible. Offer reassurance that both parents will continue to love and care for him. Your tone of voice and touch are soothing and will continue to be comforting as words begin to have specific meaning (typically at 12 to 18 months of age).

Take care of yourself.

Don't be dismayed if you find your parenting responsibilities more difficult at this time. You may feel overwhelmed and less capable as a parent. To counter these feelings, take time to attend to your own emotional needs. Cultivate a support system, including extended family, friends, clergy, and your personal physician. You also may want to seek counseling with a mental health professional.

Talk to your pediatrician.

With expertise in child development and an established relationship with you and your baby, your pediatrician is in a unique position to help guide your family though this difficult time. In light of this, the American Academy of Pediatrics recently released guidelines for its members on how to help children and families deal with divorce and separation. Your pediatrician, for example, can help you understand and respond to your baby's reactions to the divorce. She can also identify age-appropriate materials to read to your child and, if necessary, refer you to mental health professionals.

Maintain a positive outlook.

Perhaps most important, try to be optimistic. This will benefit both you and your baby. While it's true that some children whose parents divorce suffer emotional problems, most adjust well over time  -- especially when they've had supportive relationships, a nurturing environment, and, if needed, professional counseling.

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