Leaving your baby is never easy, and it’s especially brutal if he screams and clings whenever you head out. But separation anxiety is a normal part of development. "It's an indication that a child is attached to his parents," says Ross A. Thompson, Ph.D., a professor of psychology at the University of Nebraska, in Lincoln. Ultimately, this strong sense of security will help your baby learn to be an independent toddler. In the meantime, though, you can follow these tips for handling separation anxiety with ease.
When Does Separation Anxiety Start in Babies?
You can blame separation anxiety on intellectual development. "During the first months of life, your baby has no idea that she’s independent from her caregiver," says Jude Cassidy, Ph.D., a professor of psychology at the University of Maryland, in College Park. That's why young babies happily move from one lap to another.
Around 8 months, however, your infant begins to distinguish between people, and he forms strong emotional attachments to his caregivers. He's also learning the concept of object permanence: things and people (including Mom and Dad) still exist even when she can't see them anymore. "When you add these developmental advances together, you've got the perfect equation for separation anxiety," Dr. Cassidy says.
Separation anxiety in infants often starts between 8 and 14 months old. It can rear its head when you're dropping your baby off at daycare—or when you're simply going to the bathroom. And when it seems Baby is finally beginning to adapt, separation anxiety makes a resurgence around 15 months. It's a little different this time around, though: Your child understands that you're somewhere else when you leave, but she doesn't know if you're leaving for one minute or forever.
Signs of Separation Anxiety in Infants
"The timing and intensity of the separation anxiety may be different for different children," says Jessica Mercer Young, Ph.D., a research scientist at Education Development Center in Newton, MA. Your little one will likely get clingy and cry as soon as you leave her side. It doesn’t matter whether she’s at daycare, in her crib, or at Grandma’s house—the tears will shed regardless. Rest assured, though, she'll probably calm down shortly after you walk out the door.
The intensity of your child's reaction depends on her temperament. Other factors play a role too: Infants who have been exposed early on to caregivers other than their parents tend to have an easier time dealing with departures in later months. However, if your baby is tired, hungry, or sick, she's likely to give you a very hard time if you leave.
Tips for Separation Anxiety in Babies
While your baby's cries might tempt you to cancel your plans, giving in will only make matters worse the next time you need to leave. Here's what you can do to comfort your child.
Practice separation: To make separation less of a shock, play peekaboo to reinforce the notion that you’ll always return. You can also send stuffed animals or dolls on little "journeys" and then reunite them with your child. Finally, try leaving him for a few short periods of time—a half hour to an hour—with someone he knows and trusts. Once he sees that you always return (and that other caregivers are fun and loving, too), try out a babysitter.
Create a goodbye ritual: Routine is especially important for younger babies, notes Donna Holloran, owner of Babygroup, Inc. in Santa Monica, California. Try creating a goodbye ritual that will soothe both of you and prepare Baby for the separation. Sing a little song, give a hug and kiss, or wave to your little one right before you walk out the door. Find whatever works for you and stick to it.
Avoid sneaking out. A big mistake is trying to leave when your child is not looking, or sneaking away when the child is engaged in activity, without saying goodbye. "The child may suddenly become anxious or upset that she didn't get a chance to say goodbye or give a kiss goodbye," Dr. Young explains.
Don’t draw out leaving: It's normal and healthy for your baby to cry when you leave, so don't discourage it. "The ability to be aware of and express one's feelings is an important emotional foundation," Dr. Cassidy says. That does not mean, however, that you should delay departure. Hanging around trying to comfort him may only prolong the agony. Instead, give your child a hug and a kiss, tell him you love him, and hand him over to the caregiver. Soon enough, he'll stop crying—and you'll stop feeling guilty.
Keep your emotions in check. As hard as it may be, hold the tears—at least until you get to the car. If your child sees you upset, that will only heighten his own anxiety.
Plan a happy reunion: "As parents, we often overlook an important part of the separation process: the reunion," Dr. Thompson says. "Happy reunion rituals are essential to reinforcing the parent-child bond and keeping separation anxiety in check." Dr. Thompson suggests following your child's cues. If she reaches up to you when you arrive, give her a big hug and just hang out with her a little while before heading back inside. If she waves a toy, get down and play with her for a few minutes. "These kinds of happy returns remind your child that no matter how sad it is when Mommy and Daddy leave," Dr. Thompson says, "it's always wonderful when they come back."
Stock up on “goodbye gear.” Make sure your child has a stuffed animal or blanket that will comfort her when you leave. You can also invest in an inexpensive photo album filled with family photos, or record yourself reading a story or saying "I love you" on tape.
Don’t hesitate to check in. It doesn't matter how many times it happens—when your child cries as you leave, it will break your heart. Don't be embarrassed to check in throughout the day. It will give you peace of mind and lessen the guilt of leaving.
Establish a soothing bedtime routine. Dealing with separation anxiety in babies at night? Try making a relaxing routine that you follow at bedtime: bath, books, goodnight kiss, etc. This will prepare Baby for the upcoming separation. You can also record yourself reading stories or singing lullabies, and turn it on when she’s s feeling alone or scared.