Separation Anxiety

by Marcella

Now that your little one’s starting to assert his independence, it seems counterintuitive that he’s also becoming clingier. After being dropped off happily at daycare for a month, he bursts into tears when you say goodbye. Or when grandparents visit, arms outstretched, he grabs onto you and won’t let go. Although Grandma may take it a bit personally, separation anxiety has nothing to do with her —- and everything to do with you and your baby.

Separation anxiety is a normal developmental stage for babies 6 months and up. Your baby’s aware of object permanence, so he can remember people after they’ve gone away, but has no sense of time, so he can’t remember how long they’ve been gone. You’re the most important person in your baby’s life, so, once he realizes you’re going, the tears start. In his mind, you’re leaving him for good! Your baby needs to learn that Mommy always comes back.

Don’t sneak out!
Getting your baby involved in a favorite activity can distract him from getting too upset when you leave. As tempting as it sounds, that doesn’t mean you should just slip out once he’s sidetracked. Though it’s hard to watch your baby’s distress, disappearing will only make matters worse next time. Seeing you leave cheerfully, and return as promised, will teach him that goodbyes aren’t forever.

If this is baby’s first time with a new caregiver, you can prepare by giving him time to get to know her. For the first few encounters, help him get comfortable by staying for half an hour, so he realizes this is someone you trust. In the case of a familiar caregiver, you’ll need to work together to get through this phase. One smart mom found a place, like a porch or back window, where she could watch her baby calm down without being seen. It made her feel much better to see him stop crying in a matter of minutes!

Friends and Grandparents
Last visit, your baby played happily with Grandma for hours while you went shopping. This time, though, he cries as soon as you nip out to the bathroom. Babies’ memories are short, and that visit three weeks ago is long forgotten. Give your baby time to get accustomed to Grandma all over again, especially if they haven’t seen each other for a while. As baby grows, he’ll start to remember her for longer periods. Then Grandma can look forward to big smiles —- and open arms.

{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

Amber September 7, 2012 at 7:07 am

We’ve been dealing with this with our 13-month-old for a few months now. Our main problem is taking him to the nursery at church and the gym. There is a different couple every week at church. So I try to stay with him for a few minutes and he plays happily. Then about 10 minutes after I leave his number comes up on the screen. When I go back to the nursery, he’s hyperventilating because he’s sobbing so hard. Hubby and I will be volunteering soon to do nursery, but I’m worried his anxiety is about us leaving him with strangers on the weeks we aren’t in there, not necessarily about the room and situation. Any advice for this would be very appreciated! :-)


Amber September 7, 2012 at 7:09 am

BTW, the baby in the picture looks alot like mine, but my son has blonde hair and very blonde eyebrows! LOL And he makes that same pitiful face when I leave. :-(


October 19, 2012 at 4:50 pm

I’ve worked in nursery and pre-K for over 6 years, and I can tell you when parents linger it makes it worse. Keeping good-byes short and sweet really makes a difference in how long this continues with a child.

With a new nursery school I recommend going in for several visits (30 min to an hour long) before your child will begin attending. Also, with infants and young toddlers it may help to pack a security blanket or comforting item. Many caregivers will allow the child to hold/use the item until he/she can calm down enough to play. Eventually, as the child grows more comfortable the security item is no longer necessary or is only minimally necessary.

Letting a caregiver know how your child responds to stress is very important. Some children when they are upset do NOT want held or bothered, they would prefer to sit in quiet place and watch for a while before being engaged. Other children desperately need physical contact for comfort when they are upset. When a new caretaker knows this it is much easier to allow the child to decompress in the way that is more comfortable for him/her.

One of the most important things, and the hardest of all, is trusting someone to care for your child. However, I can’t stress enough that lingering parents only make things worse. It sends the child very poor messages. Generally I like parents to stick to a routine good-bye, as hard as it is (especially for new moms and dads) it does work. It’s simply a developmental phase kids go through, and some stay in it longer than others, and for some children separating from their parents might always be a challenge, but there is no sense in parents torturing themselves over it. You will be back to pick up your child, and I promise…your child will be OKAY. :)


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