Separation Anxiety in Babies: Causes, Signs, and Tips for Handling It
In the first few weeks and months of a baby’s life, parents often marvel at how wonderful their little angel is when others hold them. Fast forward a few months, however, and it’s likely a whole different ball game. Any attempts to escape or leave are met with shrieks and screams and a mess of tears and drool. Why the change?
Chances are your little one is learning what object permanence is, and they’re feeling anxious and unsettled when they’re away from the security of mom or dad. In other words, it’s just a touch of separation anxiety.
Ahead we’ll take a closer look at separation anxiety, what brings it on, common signs, and a few great tips for dealing with it.
What is separation anxiety?
Separation anxiety is the anxiety your baby or toddler will feel when you or anyone else, such as a caregiver, leaves their site. Whether it’s walking out of a room for a moment or dropping them off at daycare for the day, your absence can trigger a fearful and anxious response in your child.
However, rest assured that this is just a phase that almost all kids go through, and it’s a completely normal part of their development.
Signs of separation anxiety
While the signs of separation anxiety in babies tend to vary from child to child, parents can expect to see any or all of the following:
- Crying when a caregiver or parent leaves the room
- A strong preference for one parent over another
- Clinginess in new and unfamiliar situations
- A fear of strangers
- Night waking and crying
- A refusal (or inability) to fall asleep without a parent nearby
What causes separation anxiety?
Before the eight-month mark, babies don’t necessarily develop attachments. For that reason, most parents will find that their baby will adjust relatively easily to any caregiver. Somewhere around eight months, however, your child begins to distinguish between people and faces clearly, and from that point on, they’ll begin forming strong emotional attachments to their caregivers.
Around this same time (approximately 4 to 7 months of age), babies can begin to develop a sense of object permanence. In other words, they gain the understanding that people and objects still exist even when they can’t be seen or heard.
When you pair their new understanding of object permanence with the fact that kids at this age don’t understand the concept of time, you have a recipe for disaster – also known as separation anxiety. Essentially, your child knows that mom or dad is gone, but they don’t know that mom or dad will come back. This can leave them scared and anxious when their parent or caregiver leaves their site.
How long does separation anxiety last?
Like every other stage of your child’s development, separation anxiety will vary from child to child. While some babies may start to show signs of separation anxiety as early as 4 to 5 months, most will begin to show signs of separation anxiety somewhere around eight months.
Separation anxiety tends to peak somewhere between 10 to 18 months, and it usually ends by the time your child hits toddlerhood — or the 3-year mark.
Tips for dealing with separation anxiety
Separation anxiety isn’t easy for anyone – not you, and certainly not your child. Here are some tips for getting over the hump.
Practice makes perfect
Kim Sopman, certified sleep consultant and founder of Rest Easy Sleep Consulting, suggests that parents practice brief separations with their children. She says, “leave your child with a caregiver for brief periods and short distances at first, gradually increasing time away as the child becomes more comfortable.” This teaches your baby that while you can go away, you’ll still come back.
It’s worth noting that practicing separation might be more fun for your baby when he initiates the leave-taking. So, the next time your baby crawls into another room, seize the opportunity and wait a few minutes before going after him. If you don’t follow up right away, it gives him a minute or two to process your absence.
If you plan to practice separations, do the exercise after a nap or feeding. As Sopman notes, “babies are more susceptible to separation anxiety when they’re hungry or tired.”
Use playtime as practice
Sopman shares that playtime is an excellent way to support your child’s learning of object permanence. Here are some valuable games to try playing with your baby.
- Hiding behind a cushion, then a sofa, then the door as your baby begins to tolerate absences better
- Practice goodbyes – start with just 2 minutes of absence, then work this time up slowly
- ‘Lift the flap’ books
- Hiding toys under a blanket to see if the baby knows to search for them
Create a goodbye ritual
Rituals, routines, and consistency are incredibly reassuring to children, and they’re especially important to younger babies. To ease feelings of separation anxiety in your child, try creating a goodbye ritual that would ease the tension for both of you. In this case, Sopman urges parents to keep it simple and resist the urge to overcomplicate things. “It could be as simple as a special wave or special goodbye kiss.”
Leave without fanfare, but make your departure known
While it’s tempting to sneak out when your baby isn’t looking (we’ve all done it), this is a mistake. According to Sopman, “Sneaking out creates mistrust and can lead to increased separation anxiety down the road.” Instead of sneaking out, Sopman urges parents to announce their departure and go quickly.
Mind your own emotions
Every parent feels a surge of emotions when dropping their child off at the daycare for the first time (again, you’re not alone). But as hard as it might be, you must keep your own emotions in check for everyone’s sake.
According to Dr. Fran Walfish, Beverly Hills family and relationship psychotherapist, and author, of The Self-Aware Parent, “some parents may unwittingly contribute to their child’s fears.” And for that reason, “it is crucial for parents to take a hard, painful look at how they feel about leaving their child, especially if their child is protesting or showing signs of distress.”
Dr. Walfish goes on to say that kids often pick up on cues from their parents. “If the parent becomes anxious and distressed [because they’re leaving their child], the child will mirror this, and both [of them] will escalate into an anxiety frenzy… If you are self-aware, you can keep a lid on your effect, behavior, and body language to facilitate your child’s healthy separation toward independent functioning.”
A note for new parents: Your baby will be ok. While it may be difficult to leave your baby for the first time, especially when they’re crying, just remember that they will stop crying once you’re gone. Babies have a wonderful ability to shift their focus to what or who is immediately in front of them. Rest assured, they will not cry the entire time you’re gone. This is likely harder for you than it is for them.
Make sure reunions are happy
It’s important to remember that reunions are not an independent event; they are very much a part of the separation process. So, while your departure should be quick and easy, your reunions should be a big deal. Be sure to greet your little one with big hugs, sloppy kisses, maybe even throw in a few raspberries for good measure. Happy reunions remind your child that while it may be sad when you leave, it’s always wonderful when you come back. And perhaps most importantly, it reinforces the parent-child bond and does the heavy lifting to keep separation anxiety in check.
Keep familiar surroundings when possible and make new surroundings familiar
To keep your child’s separation anxiety in check, Sopman encourages parents to make their child as comfortable as possible, “If possible, have the caregiver come to your house when caring for your child. And when your child is away from home, allow them to bring a familiar object along.”
Make sure your child has their favorite comfort items
Every child has a toy or blanket that they drag around everywhere they go. These items are important to your child because they are familiar and comforting. So, when you know that you’ll be leaving, whether it’s dropping them off at daycare or Grandma’s, don’t forget the lovey. These items can go a long way toward easing your baby’s separation anxiety.
How to deal with separation anxiety at night
If you’re dealing with separation anxiety in your baby during the day, you can bet that you’ll be dealing with a bit of separation anxiety at night. Here are a few strategies to help everyone get a little shuteye.
Establish and maintain a good bedtime routine
A consistent bedtime routine will help your baby wind down and prepare for bedtime. These relaxing routines serve as a soothing goodbye to the day instead of an abrupt ending with the lights going out.
The repetition of a bedtime routine that includes bathtime, reading a book, dimming the lights, and soothing music will help your child understand what’s next. Eventually, they will learn to associate these cues with bedtime, and their separation anxiety will subside.
Leave the doors open
If your child can’t see you, it might still be comforting to her if she can hear you, so leave the doors open at night.
Keep blankies and binkies close
Giving your child access to their comfort items is just as important at night as is during the day. If you’re lucky, your baby may wake up in the middle of the night and reach for their blankie to soothe themselves back to sleep instead of waking you and everyone else in the house.
Don’t sneak out
While it may be tempting to sneak out once your child falls asleep, this practice is ill-advised. When your child wakes up and finds that you are not there, it might cause them some distress. Instead, try to put your baby down when they are sleepy but still awake, and again, make your exit known, so there are no surprises in the wee hours of the night. If need be, try leaving some soothing music on to calm them when they wake. Moshi has a delightful and comprehensive library of soothing sounds that will help your baby get back to sleep in no time.
Separation anxiety is a normal part of your child’s development. And while it may be hard to see when you’re in the thick of it, it’s just another sure sign that your baby is on target — much like other challenging developmental milestones. The key to getting over the hump is taking the time and making an effort to reassure your child that even though you may go away, you always return with lots of hugs and kisses.