In the early days, you can hand your baby over to someone else and he’ll hardly even notice. Sometime after your tot’s half-birthday, however, he may 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 and 18 months of age, even if they’ve been in day-care 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 he isn’t yet confident enough in the world to know that you’ll return after you leave him. (And he’s pretty sure you’re the best thing around!) 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 many moms feel it’s important to work through the 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, since 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 is always challenging, but leaving him when he’s screaming bloody murder and reaching out for you? Cue the tears from mama.
Although this stage is tough, don’t beat yourself up: Keep in mind it’s expected that your baby will go through this. It’s an indicator that you’re excelling at your job as a mom —separation anxiety signals your bambino has developed a healthy bond with you and trusts you to meet his needs. He’s attached to you, and that’s a good thing! Don’t let anyone make you feel badly or try to tell you that you’ve “spoiled” your child. He’s healthy and normal. He will develop and grow in his 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 he needs your love and attention. The more you bond with him, the more confidence he’ll have in you—and, in the long run, that will make the separations even easier.
Trust is an essential part of your baby overcoming his separation anxiety—and he’s gaining a little more confidence in your commitment to him 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 minutes, and talk to him through the wall to let him know you’re still there if he protests. When you pop back in and say, “hi,” he’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. If possible, leave him with someone he knows—a grandparent, close family friend or your partner—and stay positive about the experience, even if you’re feeling sad or anxious yourself. 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 him. 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. And even though your baby doesn’t understand exactly what you’re saying, explain to him what’s going on. Tell him grandma’s going to play with him for an hour or two but that you’ll be back soon. Eventually, your baby will comprehend and be soothed by your words.
Just go already
That step out the door is the most challenging part for everyone involved, and how you handle it can have a huge 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 him to believe you can disappear at any moment without notice, causing even more clinginess and anxiety. Tell him that you’re leaving—happy voice and smiles all around—and confidently pass him off to his caregiver with a swift kiss and cheerful wave. He’s feeding off your emotions, so if you’re upset or nervous, he will be too.
Don’t rush through your departure, but don’t prolong it either. Dragging things out only makes it more painful for both of you. After you’ve said your good-byes, turn around and leave, no matter how hard it is. You’ll be tempted to go back when you hear his 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!).
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, he’ll be the one skipping out the door leaving you behind, and a whole new form of anxiety will take center stage.