Up until about 8-months-old, your baby most likely showed little reaction when you left him/her in someone else’s care. On your first night out without the baby, you worried that your little one would have a hard time with you leaving, but as you learned, he/she didn’t even look up when you said goodbye. Then, all of a sudden (and, yes, it does happen all of a sudden), the crying and screaming began. Now, your baby can’t tolerate being apart from you for even a second. What is going on?
Welcome to the world of Separation Anxiety.
What it is
Separation Anxiety is your baby’s fear that you will leave and not come back. It typically develops between the ages of 8 and 12 months and can last several weeks or months, usually fading by 24 months. Separation anxiety develops when your baby first understands that you exist—and that there’s only one of you. As your baby successfully grasps this concept, he or she can become upset when you separate. Additionally, because your child is learning that you can leave, but doesn’t understand (yet) that you’ll be back, your baby experiences significant (and real) fear and anxiety, triggering a river of tears and, possibly, some clingy behavior.
But, as heartbreaking as it is for a parent to watch their child in such distress, it is important to note that separation anxiety is a normal and, even, healthy stage of their emotional development.
What it looks like
Fussing and crying are the most typical signs of separation anxiety. Some children may also scream and throw a tantrum (throwing oneself on the floor, kicking and screaming). During the day, some babies may refuse to leave a parent’s side, and, consequently, may refuse to take naps. He or she may additionally wake up and cry several times during the night.
How to cope
Practice saying goodbye: as early as possible, introduce your child to another caregiver. Leave your child with that caregiver for short periods of times, allowing him/her to practice separating from you. Eventually, he or she will learn that it’s okay to be apart from you and that you will come back.
Time your goodbye: if possible, try and leave your child when he/she is well rested and fed. A hungry, sleepy baby is more likely to have a meltdown when feelings of fear and anxiety compound.
Don’t prolong your Goodbye: a quick and gentle, “Bye, I’ll be back after lunch” is the best way to go. Let your child know exactly when you’ll be back, give them a sizeable hug and kiss and then, walk away. As hard as it is, try not to give in to your child’s crying by returning. Returning after you’ve already said goodbye tells your child that there is, in fact, something to be afraid of. When your child sees that you are okay with separating, they are learning to be okay with it too.
Be confident about your goodbye: sometimes separation anxiety is worst for the parent, than it is for the child. It is hard to leave your baby behind, especially if they are crying. But remaining cool and confident in front of your child will let him/her know that there is nothing to worry about.
Keep in mind that your child cries to prevent you from leaving. Once you’re gone, the tears aren’t likely to last very long. Follow these tips to ease your child’s anxiety (and yours) when separating. It is normal and healthy for an infant and young toddler to go through this stage of development. And, remember that with a lot of patience and with time they will, eventually, figure out that when you leave, you always come back.