I’ve always thought the term “separation anxiety” wasn’t an adequate one. It sounds kind of clinical and dull, in my opinion. But those of us whose babies and toddlers have experienced separation anxiety (and I’m guessing that’s almost all of us) know that the separation anxiety is anything but dull!
At any rate, separation anxiety is the topic of today’s article. Specifically, we will look at why and when separation anxiety occurs, how it affects sleep, and what you can do to cope with it.
Don’t Worry, Separation Anxiety Is Normal. (In fact, it is a good sign!)
- It might not seem normal for your baby or toddler to cling to your legs, spider-monkey style, and scream until they turn purple, but do not worry — it’s very normal indeed!
- In the first few months of your baby’s life, he is really not able to distinguish between adults; one caregiver looks and feels much like another. That’s why most newborns and young infants are content to be passed around between adults. Beginning around 7 or 8 months, however, your baby will start being able to tell one adult from another; she will also start to become more attached to mom and dad. In this way, separation anxiety is a good sign; it indicates that a baby is forming strong, healthy attachments to her parents.
What Is Separation Anxiety, and Why Does It Happen?
- Babies adapt well to other caregivers. Parents probably feel more anxiety about being separated than infants do! As long as their needs are being met, most babies younger than 6 months adjust easily to other people.
- Between 4-7 months of age, babies develop a sense of “object permanence.” They are realizing that things and people exist even when they are out of sight. Babies learn that when they cannot see mom or dad, that means they have gone away. They do not understand the concept of time, so they don’t know mom will come back, and can become upset by her absence. Whether mom is in the kitchen, in the next bedroom, or at the office, it is all the same to the baby, who might cry until mom is nearby again.
- Babies between 8 months and 1 year old are growing into more independent toddlers yet are even more uncertain about being separated from a parent. This is when separation anxiety develops, and children may become agitated and upset when a parent tries to leave.
- Whether you need to go into the next room for just a few seconds, leave your child with a sitter for the evening, or drop off your child at daycare, your child might now react by crying, clinging to you, and resisting attention from others.
- The timing of separation anxiety can vary. Some kids might go through it later, between 18 months and 2½ years of age. Some never experience it. And for others, certain life stresses can trigger feelings of anxiety about being separated from a parent: a new childcare situation or caregiver, a new sibling, moving to a new place, or tension at home
How Do I Know If My Baby Has Separation Anxiety?
Separation anxiety is pretty easy to spot, and you’re probably reading this section because you’ve identified it in your baby. The following are behaviours typically demonstrated by a baby with normal separation anxiety:
- Crying when a parent is out of sight
- Strong preference for only one parent
- Fear of strangers
- Waking at night crying for a parent
- Easily comforted in a parent’s embrace
How To Avoid Sleep Problems Due To Separation Anxiety?
The first thing we all need to sleep well, is the knowledge that we are safe and secure. Your goal when dealing with separation anxiety is to grow her confidence in being separated from you, namely that you will be back.
Here is what you can do:
- Allow your baby to be a baby
- It’s perfectly okay — even wonderful — for your baby to be so attached to you and for them to desire your constant companionship. Congratulations, Mommy or Daddy: It’s evidence that the bond you’ve worked so hard to create is holding. So politely ignore those who tell you otherwise.
- Play peek-a-boo and hide-and-seek
- From a couple of months old, start playing peek-a-boo games regularly: hide your face and then re-appear, very likely your baby will giggle in delight!
- Gradually hide your face for a bit longer each time. Also hide underneath the table, or behind a door. Watch your little one to see how far you can go. Or it can be her hiding from you.
- Play these games frequently: by seeing you re-appear each time, your child learns that you will be back even if she does not see you all the time.
- Talk about what you will do
- Babies understand a lot more of what we say than we realize.
- Therefore, it is a good idea to tell her what you will do while she sleeps.
- Show little one e.g. where in the living room you will be reading a book or in which part of the house you will be doing chores.
- Also, if your little one does not sleep in your room, it is a good idea to make a visit to your bedroom part of the bedtime routine. Knowing where you will be at night may be all the reassurance she needs when she wakes up
- Don’t dramatize
- As heartbreaking as it may be, do not cry along. If your little one sees that you are confident and that it is not a big deal, that trust will grow in her too.
- However, if you cry with her, she will understand that it really is a bad thing if you are not together all the time.
- For putting her to bed this means go through the bedtime routine as usual and leave the room just as confidently as usual. Do not hesitate but comfort and reassure when necessary.
- Share tasks with your partner of another career
- If possible, it is a good idea to have your partner or another career regularly take your little one to bed. This will help her get used to not being with you all the time.
- However, if you breastfeed, you may naturally grow into the only person that brings her to bed. By the time you stop nursing and want to have someone else put her to bed, the separation anxiety might be at a peak.
- You can wait for the worst of the anxiety to pass.
- Alternatively, gradually get your little one used to others taking her to bed by doing it together at first, taking turns, etc.
- Keep your promises
- This is a tiny but powerful trick, most useful for an older infant of one or towards two years old.
- When putting your child to bed, and she feels uneasy, tell her that you will come back to check on her soon. And then do go back, but very quickly, let’s say within two minutes. This way she learns that you do come back when you say so, and quickly.
- Doing this a couple of times is often enough to reassure her and you may soon find her to sleep before you get the chance to go back to her room.
- Don’t rush the parting, but don’t prolong it, either
- Give your little one ample time to process your leave-taking, but don’t drag it out and make it more painful for both of you.
- Allow your baby the separation that they initiate
- For example, if they crawl off to another room, don’t rush after baby. Listen and peek, of course, to make sure they’re safe, but let them know it’s fine to go off exploring on their own.
- Minimize separations when possible
- While you may need to head back to work or have to run an errand alone, try to bring your little when possible. It’s perfectly acceptable for now to avoid those situations that would have you separate from your baby. All too soon, your baby will move past this phase and on to the next developmental milestone.
- Express a positive attitude when leaving
- If you’re off to work, or an evening out, leave with a smile. Your baby will absorb your emotions, so if you’re nervous about leaving, they’ll be nervous too. Your confidence will help alleviate baby’s fears.
Professional help for separation anxiety and separation anxiety disorder
It’s rare that separation anxiety persists on a daily basis after the preschool years. If you’re concerned that your child isn’t adapting to being without you, chat with the paediatrician. Your paediatrician has certainly helped support families in the same situation and can help calm your unease and determine a plan to support both of you!
You know your child best. If you’re worried about his separation anxiety, consider seeking professional help. Here are some places to start:
- your child’s teacher at preschool or school, or a school counsellor
- your child’s GP or paediatrician, who will be able to refer you to an appropriate mental health practitioner
- your local children’s health or community health center
- a specialist anxiety clinic (present in most states)
- your local mental health service