When do infants begin to develop separation anxiety?
You can attribute separation anxiety to intellectual development. Dr. Jude Cassidy, a professor of psychology at the University of Maryland, College Park, says, “In the first few months of life, your baby doesn’t know that she’s independent of her caregivers. . That’s why young babies move happily from one lap to the other.
At about 8 months, however, your infant begins to distinguish between humans and forms strong emotional attachments to his caregiver. He is also learning the concept of object permanence: objects and people (including mom and dad) are still there, even if she never sees them again. Dr. Cassidy says, “When you put these developmental advances together, you get the perfect equation for separation anxiety.” .
Separation anxiety in infants often begins between 8 and 14 months of age. It raises its head when you drop your child off at daycare or when you just go to the bathroom. Separation anxiety rears its ugly head around 15 months when the infant finally seems to start adjusting. This time things are a little different: when you leave, your child knows you’re somewhere else, but she doesn’t know if you’re gone for a minute or forever.
Symptoms of separation anxiety in infants
“The timing and intensity of separation anxiety can vary for different children,” says Dr. Jessica Mercer-Young, a research scientist at the Educational Development Center in Newton, Massachusetts. . Once you leave her side, your little one is likely to become clingy and cry. Whether she’s in daycare, in her crib or at Grandma’s house, the tears will be unrelenting. But rest assured, she will probably calm down soon after you walk out the door.
The intensity of your child’s reaction depends on his or her personality. Other factors also play a role: Babies tend to deal more easily with running away from home later in life when they are exposed to caregivers other than their parents early on. However, if your baby is tired, hungry, or sick, she may give you a very hard time if you leave.
Tips for infant separation anxiety
While your baby’s crying may tempt you to cancel your plans, compromising will only make things worse the next time you need to leave. Here’s what you can do to comfort your child
Practice separation: To reduce the shock of separation, playing hide and seek can reinforce the idea that you will always come back. You can also send stuffed animal toys or dolls on your little “journey” and reunite them with your child. Finally, try letting him spend a short time (half an hour to an hour) with someone he knows and trusts. Once he sees that you always come back (and that the other caregivers are fun and loving, too), try babysitting.
Create a goodbye ritual: Routines are especially important for little ones, says Donna Holloran, owner of Babygroup in Santa Monica, Calif. Try creating a goodbye ritual that will soothe you both and prepare your baby for the separation. Sing a little song, give a hug and kiss, or wave to your little one before you walk out the door. Find what works for you and stick to it.
Avoid sneaking out. A big mistake is trying to leave when your child isn’t looking, or sneaking away without saying goodbye when your child is busy with an activity. “Children can suddenly become anxious or depressed because they don’t get a chance to say goodbye or kiss goodbye,” explains Dr. Young.
Don’t delay leaving: It’s normal and healthy for your baby to cry while you’re gone, so don’t discount it. “The ability to be aware of and express your feelings is an important emotional foundation,” says Dr. Cassidy. However, that doesn’t mean you should postpone your departure. Hovering around trying to comfort him may only prolong the pain. Instead, give your child a hug and a kiss, tell him you love him, and then hand him over to someone who will care for him. Soon, he will stop crying and you will stop feeling guilty.
Control your emotions. No matter how hard it is, control the tearsーーat least until you get in the car. If your child sees you upset, it will only add to his own anxiety.
Plan a happy reunion: “As parents, we often overlook an important part of the separation process: the reunion,” says Dr. Thompson. “Happy reunion rituals are critical to strengthening the parent-child relationship and curbing separation anxiety.” Dr. Thompson recommends following your child’s lead. If she comes to you when you arrive, give her a big hug and spend some time with her before heading back. If she swings a toy, come down and play with her for a few minutes. “This happy return reminds your child that no matter how sad mommy and daddy were when they left,” says Dr. Thompson, “it’s always wonderful when they come back.”
Prepare a “goodbye kit” by making sure your child has a stuffed animal or blanket that will comfort her while you’re gone. You can also buy an inexpensive family photo album or record yourself reading a story or saying “I love you” on tape.
Don’t hesitate to check in. It doesn’t matter how many times this happensーーwhen your child cries while you’re gone, it will break your heart. Don’t feel embarrassed about having to check in all day. It will give you inner peace and ease the guilt you feel when you leave.
Establish a soothing bedtime routine. How can you handle separation anxiety in your infant during the night? Try doing something relaxing before bedtime: bath time, reading, goodnight kisses, etc. This will prepare your baby for the upcoming separation. You can also record yourself reading a story or singing a lullaby and turn it on when she feels lonely or scared.