Separation Anxiety in Babies

There might be days when your little one starts behaving differently. You might notice her to be a bit clingier, fearful of people, or prone to crying when left alone. This is called separation anxiety, which is a normal part of your baby's development.

To understand the causes of separation issues, the steps for dealing with separation anxiety and to help your toddler as he goes through this developmental stage, keep reading!

What Is Separation Anxiety?

Separation anxiety is a phase that almost all children go through. It’s a completely normal part of the emotional development of your infant or toddler, and your little one will probably grow out of it when he’s about two years old.

What Are the Signs of Separation Anxiety?

During the separation anxiety phase, your baby may exhibit the following signs:

  • He may tense up around strangers, or even act shy around people he sees quite regularly, such as friends, relatives, or the babysitter.

  • He may cry or put up a fuss whenever you leave him with someone or whenever you leave the room.

  • At bedtime, when you leave him in the crib, he may cry until you return.

  • In the middle of the night, he may wake up crying in search of you (read more on night-time separation anxiety here).

What Causes Separation Anxiety in Babies?

For many newborns, separation anxiety starts at around eight months of age, but you may start noticing the signs of separation anxiety in your baby in as early as four months. When it comes to separation, many children become intensely anxious about leaving their parents. This happens because babies between four and seven months start realising that people and objects exist even when they can’t see them. This is known as object permanence.

When you leave the room, your toddler knows that you’ve gone away. Although he knows you still exist, he will become sad and upset for not seeing you. He won't know when you'll return or if you will even return as he doesn't have any understanding of time (this doesn't develop until he's older) and may cry or put up a fuss for it.

How Long Does Separation Anxiety Last?

All children develop on their own timelines, but the separation anxiety phase typically peaks when a baby is between 10 months and 18 months old. It usually goes away during the last half of your baby’s second year.

The length of the separation anxiety period may be affected by how you respond to certain situations. For example, if your response during a crying spell is to run and comfort your baby, he may learn that a crying fit will prevent you from leaving in the future.

It’s natural for you to want to comfort your little one when he’s upset. Just be aware that how you react can influence how he responds in a similar situation later on.

As your baby becomes a toddler, he may still show signs of separation anxiety. For a one-year-old, brief periods of separation (more on this in the next section) can help develop his independence. In other words, you can help your toddler learn to await your return instead of throwing a tantrum (get tips on eliminating tantrums).

In some rare circumstances, separation anxiety can last through the elementary school years. Check in with your child's doctor if you’re concerned about your child’s anxiety.

How to Help Your Baby Deal with Separation Anxiety?

There is no standard medical treatment for separation anxiety, meaning you need more of a personal approach to deal with such situations. Here are some steps to cope with your baby’s separation anxiety:

  • Time your leaves:

If you need to leave, try to do so when your baby is more likely to feel calm, such as after naptime or after you’ve fed him. Your baby is more susceptible to separation anxiety when tired, hungry, or sick. If your baby is sick, try to spend as much time with him as possible.

  • Don’t make a big deal out of it:

If you’ve handed your baby off to someone else, have this person create a distraction, whether it’s with a new toy, playing in front of a mirror, or even a bath. This is your chance to slip away unnoticed.

  • Practice separation at home:

Leave-taking is a lot easier when your baby initiates the separation, such as when he crawls into another room. When this happens (if it’s safe), instead of following him right away, wait a while. If you need to leave the room briefly (after making sure the room is safe for him to be in), tell your baby where you’re headed and when you’ll come back. If he cries after you’ve left, call to him to comfort him, but don’t return right away. Eventually your baby will learn from this practice that nothing bad is going to happen if you leave his sight.

  • Create an exit ritual:

If you need to drop your baby off at a sitter's or day-care, try not to just drop him off and rush out the door. Spend some time playing with him before slipping away. Reassure your baby that you will come back for him later in the day, citing a specific time: “I’ll be back after you eat lunch.”

  • Keep your promises:

Make sure you return when you say you will. This helps develop your child’s trust and will help build his confidence that he can make it through the time spent apart.

  • Know that your baby will be OK:

Remind yourself that your baby’s tears will subside after you leave. He’ll eventually turn his attention to the person with him.

How to Help Yourself Deal with Your Baby's Anxiety?

It's time to consider your own issues. You might find yourself wondering whether your child wants to be with you or not if she leaves your clutch joyfully and runs to the classroom right after reaching school. Kids are like sponges – it is their point of view and ability to read people (like their parents!) that makes them react to how they think you're doing. When your baby senses that you don't want her to leave, it becomes difficult for her to leave you. Here are some tips to help you cope up with separation anxiety:

  • Open up about your separation struggles and talk to your partner, friends, or other parents.

  • Try developing a good-bye ritual, which can be as simple as waving good-bye and blowing kisses to each other.

  • Plan a fun activity with your toddler when you're reunited - discussing about it (like going to the library or playing at home) will give you both something to look forward to.

Separation Anxiety in Babies at Night

It can be challenging if your baby is anxious about you leaving the room before bed or wakes up and cries because you’re not there during the night. This situation can be exhausting for both of you. However, be assured that this phase will pass.

Stay calm! Try developing a consistent pattern of behaviour during this period. With time, your child will learn that you will still be there in the morning.

Tactics and Tips for Dealing with Separation Anxiety at Night

Here are a few strategies you can try to lessen separation anxiety at night:

  • Make a bedtime routine:

Creating a bedtime routine can set your baby’s expectations by keeping to a consistent pattern.

  • Leave the room's door open:

Knowing that your baby can still hear you in the other room might help comfort him.

  • Give your baby a transitional object:

During this time, your baby may develop a consoling habit like sucking his thumb, rocking back and forth, or stroking and hugging an object. Check with your doctor if it’s OK to give him a small blanket or a stuffed animal.

  • Avoid rewarding your baby’s behaviour:

Do not inadvertently reward your baby for calling you in the middle of the night. Check on him to make sure he’s not sick or doesn't need a diaper change, and then verbally comfort him. Avoid picking your baby up, taking him back to bed with you, or turning on the light. While leaving, encourage your child to go back to sleep. If he is still upset and continues to cry, comfort him for a little bit longer.

FREQUENTLY ASKED QUESTIONS

  • Separation anxiety is a completely normal part of your child’s emotional development. There is no way to stop or prevent it completely.

  • There are ways you can cope with your baby’s separation anxiety at night:

    • Leave the nursery door open.

    • If your doctor approves it, give your baby a stuffed animal or a small blankie for emotional support.

    • Don’t pick her up or turn on the lights; instead, try to verbally comfort her.

  • A three-month-old baby can show some signs that she is aware that there are moments when you might not be there, but separation anxiety usually starts later, at around eight months.

  • These are signs of separation anxiety:

    • Your baby may start to become clingier with you.

    • She may be wary of others, even those she’s met before.

    • She may cry when you’re out of sight or in another room.

    • She may refuse to go to sleep or wake up in the night and cry for you.

    Separation anxiety is a part of your baby’s development as she grows into a toddler and becomes more independent. Try some of the tips mentioned above and talk to your doctor for more advice. Remember, with time this difficult phase will pass.

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