In the early days, you can hand your baby over to someone else, and she’ll hardly even notice. Sometime after your tot’s half-birthday, however, she might begin to wail at the mere thought of leaving your arms. While it can be challenging for sure, separation anxiety is a normal part of your baby’s development—and you’re both going to come out on the other side just fine. (Promise!)
I’ll be back
Most babies experience at least some degree of separation anxiety between 6-18 months of age, even if they’ve been in daycare since the beginning. There’s a good reason for this: Your baby has realized that you are two separate units who exist apart from each other, and she isn’t yet confident enough in the world to know that you’ll return after you leave her. For some tots, this anxiety patch passes in only a few weeks; others might profess their love for mom loudly and proudly for as long as a few months.
Some parents may choose to minimize their time away from baby during this period of development, but Amy Przeworski, PhD, an assistant professor in the department of psychological sciences at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Ohio, advises against such behavior. Przeworski reassures parents that what their baby is experiencing is “perfectly typical and not damaging to her in any way.”
For many moms it’s important to work through this stage the same way most others are conquered: head on and with a healthy dose of patience and love.
It’s tough to say whether separation anxiety is harder on mom or baby. Some may argue the case for mom, though, because it’s widely reported that anxious babies cease their squalling not long after their mothers leave their sight. The poor parents, however, are not necessarily soothed so easily. Leaving your baby when she’s screaming bloody murder and reaching out for you? Cue the mama tears.
Although this stage is tough, don’t beat yourself up. “Try to embrace separation anxiety as a positive sign,” advises Elizabeth Pantley, parenting expert in Seattle and author of The No-Cry Separation Anxiety Solution. “It’s perfectly OK—even wonderful —for your baby to be so attached to you and for [her] to desire your constant companionship.”
Separation anxiety signals your bambino has developed a healthy bond with you and trusts you to meet her needs. She’s attached to you, and that’s a good thing! Don’t let anyone make you feel bad or try to tell you that you’ve “spoiled” your child. She’s healthy and normal. She will develop and grow in her own time, and this season too shall pass.
Withholding affection in hopes that it will make separation easier is not a good idea. Your little one is still just a baby, and she needs your love and attention. The more you bond with her, the more confidence she’ll have in you—and, in the long run, that will make the separations even easier.
Because separation anxiety is a normal and important part of your babe’s emotional and mental development, you shouldn’t worry about finding a cure. As Pantley says, “Nothing you have done has ‘made’ your child develop separation anxiety.” Even so, your actions play a huge role in either heightening or reducing a child’s normal level of anxiety.
Trust is an essential part of your baby overcoming her separation anxiety—and she’s gaining a little more confidence in your commitment to her every day. When you’re home with your wee one, try a few trial runs by introducing object permanence (or, in this case, parent permanence). Leave your baby in another room (in a safe place) for a few seconds. You can slowly work your way up to a couple minutes— all the while talking to her to let her know you’re not far if she protests. When you pop back in and say, “Hi,” she’ll begin to understand that you always return.
When you actually leave the house (or leave baby at someone else’s house), there are a few things you can do to make your little one more comfortable. Pantley suggests mamas avoid handing baby over to another caregiver before their departure. “The problem with this is that your little one is leaving the safety and warmth of your arms and physically whisked away to another less familiar person,” she says. “It’s the ultimate separation anxiety producer.” To reduce stress, make the change in a neutral setting, such as during tummy time or sitting in a highchair.
If possible, leave her with someone she knows—a grandparent, close family friend or your partner—and see if the caregiver can arrive 30 minutes early, so baby has a little time to get acquainted with the idea of someone else caring for her. When feasible, try to work baby up to longer partings by taking a 15-minute walk around the block by yourself, then a 30-minute run to the coffee shop and finally an hour-long dinner out.
Even though your baby doesn’t understand exactly what you’re saying, explain to her what’s going on. Tell her grandma is going to play with her for an hour or two, and assure her you’ll be back soon. Eventually, your baby will comprehend and be soothed by your words.
Just go already
That first step out the door is the most challenging part for everyone involved, and how you handle it can have an enormous impact on all of you. Although you might be tempted to sneak out, so baby doesn’t notice you’re leaving, don’t! Doing so will lead her to believe you can disappear at any moment without notice, causing even more clinginess and anxiety.
When it comes time to say goodbye, keep it short and sweet. According to Przeworski, lingering just draws out the experience, making it unpleasant for a longer period of time. Tell your little one that you’re leaving—happy voice and smiles all around. She’s feeding off your emotions, so if you’re upset or nervous, she will be, too.
You’ll be tempted to go back when you hear her tears, but it won’t help—you’ll only have to go through the whole ordeal again. Once you’ve committed to leaving, you have to keep going (even if it’s hard!).
“Parents may feel guilty and think that perhaps what is best for the child is to remain with the parent at all times,” Przeworski says. “But children need to learn how to regulate their own emotions and handle being separate from their parents. The bond between [mother and baby] will not be damaged by this separation.”
Although it’s a tough phase, infant separation anxiety is part of growing up and will pass in time. Keep the faith, and continue to shower your baby with patience and love. One day, all too soon, she’ll be the one skipping out the door leaving you behind, and a whole new form of anxiety will take center stage.