As moms, especially new moms, we are quick to make sure that our child is reaching all of the appropriate developmental stages at the correct time. We are excited when our baby first smiles, we text all the family the first time he holds his head up alone, and we are sure to catch his first attempt at crawling on video. Watching a baby develop during that first year of life is one of the most wonderful experiences.
We all know, though, that raising a baby is not all fun and smiles. We cringe the first time our child starts shrieking when we leave the room to pee. We cry ourselves as we leave for an outing watching our screaming baby reaching for us and acting like Grandma is chopped liver. We live out our days in sleep deprivation from the long nights that require endless rocking and soothing our baby who refuses to allow us to leave her room. Did you know that those moments, although painful and heart-wrenching, are actually part of a normal, healthy developmental stage that is important for babies to go through? Welcome to the stage of SEPARATION ANXIETY. We are here to help you and your baby get through this stage with as few tears as possible.
Facts on Infant Separation Anxiety
- Separation anxiety peaks between 8-14 months of age. It usually ends around age 2.
- Before 8 months of age, babies are so oblivious to the world around them that they have very little understanding of what is normal, so new situations and experiences don’t frighten them. During this time, they also are becoming comfortable with their parents (especially mom), their home, and the things they see on a daily basis.
- As babies get a bit older and become more aware, they view any sort of lack of familiarity (new people and new places) as scary and threatening. They know something different is happening and that produces fear.
- To master this stage, babies must feel safe at home, trust other people in addition to their parents, and believe that their parents will always come back.
1. Create opportunities for practice.
Don’t just up and leave your baby high and dry! It’s easy to start preparing your baby for your leaving by using a few simple techniques that are fun and effective. Start with peekaboo and “Where’s the Baby?”. You’ve probably already been playing these with your baby and didn’t realize that there are additional benefits other than the priceless gut-laughing you hear. These are separation/return games and they teach baby that when you go away, you will always return.
Have mini practice sessions at home, where you leave the room for a few minutes at a time. Be sure to tell your baby where you are going and that you’ll be back soon. Even though they will not understand the words, it is good practice and they can hear reassurance in your voice. When you return say “hello” with a big smile. Start out with leaving for a few seconds and then gradually increase the time. They will soon learn to trust that you will return after you leave, and that they are safe without you there.
2. Teach your baby to trust others.
Despite what you would love to do, which is never leave your baby, the day will come when you have to get away, whether it’s back to work, a doctor’s appointment, or just for some me time (which is most important anyways). Make the transition easier for you and baby by making sure you leave your baby with people he knows and trusts. That doesn’t just magically happen, unless you’re the “lucky” few who have live-in family or live-in help.
Whoever is going to be watching baby should come over to your house a few times in advance to spend time with your baby so they can get to know each other with you still there. If you plan on leaving your baby for extended times, such as your return to work, do some practice runs. Start with leaving your baby for a small part of the day, and increase the time each time (over a week or so) until you get to the total amount of hours you will be gone. This gives everyone time to adjust and prepare themselves.
3. Create a positive goodbye routine.
When it’s time to say goodbye to your baby, whether it’s just at the church nursery for an hour or for a long day at work, keep your routine calm and consistent. Babies can feel your emotion and anxiety, so if you’re positive and confident, they are more likely to be too. Keep it short and simple. Tell your baby where you’re going, that you will be back, give a hug and kiss, and then leave! Don’t drag it out, and don’t come right back. It makes it much worse for baby if you keep coming back. Once you tell them goodbye, mean it and walk out the door. You’d be surprised how quickly your baby may calm down once you’re gone.
- Give baby their favorite toy or lovey so they feel safe and secure before you leave.
- Breastfeed your baby right before leaving, so they are full and happy.
- Be sure baby is healthy, well-rested, and generally in a good mood. Schedule your outings around baby’s happiest times of day for greater success.
- After you say goodbye, use the art of distraction. Have the person watching baby immediately get their attention with a fun toy or activity.
- Never sneak out without saying goodbye to your baby. You might think it will be easier on you both, but over time, it’ll just create more anxiety and a lack of trust for your child.
4. Separation anxiety at bedtime.
You probably feel like you just won the lottery since your baby is more than likely sleeping through the night by now. Just when you think you’re safe, all of a sudden the crying and night waking starts up again. Blame it on separation anxiety. The solution to bedtime anxiety is similar to daytime anxiety, by practicing through play, building trust, and establishing a routine. If possible, share the nighttime routine with dad, either together or him by himself, so your baby gets used to someone else putting her to bed. Be confident at bedtime and leave the room like normal. If she wakes at night, give her a few minutes to self-soothe, then go in to reassure her that she is okay and you will return in the morning.
There is not a one-size-fits-all solution to night wakings, even if it’s due to separation anxiety. Different parenting styles will reflect how you respond. As long as you act confident and try to prepare your baby as best you can during the day, all you can do now is hope for the best and wait for this phase to pass.
5. If all else fails, wait it out.
As with many childhood stages, sometimes all you can do is wait for it to pass. Since separation anxiety is a normal, healthy stage for a baby to go through and you may just have to let your baby work it out on their time. Keep encouraging and helping your baby through these moments, but don’t be discouraged if all he wants is you. There are worse things!
If your baby is having a hard time even with you at home, by wanting to be held constantly or becoming upset if she can’t see you at all times, don’t lose your cool. Wear your baby in an Ergo or a sling while you wash the dishes or tend to your other children. If you have to leave the room, talk to your baby the whole time you’re in the other room so he can hear your voice. Prioritize your outings to minimize your time spent away from baby, at least until you’re out of the woods.
And remember, this too shall pass.