Nothing a parent does can "make" their baby develop separation anxiety. It's a perfectly normal and important developmental adaptation. Nearly all children experience separation anxiety between the ages of 7 and 18 months. Some have more intense reactions than others, and for some, the stage lasts longer than others, but almost all babies have it to some degree.
The development of separation anxiety demonstrates that your baby has formed a healthy, loving attachment to you. It is a beautiful sign that your baby associates pleasure, comfort, and security with your presence.
It also indicates that your baby is developing intellectually (in other words, they're smart!) They have learned they can have an effect on their world when they make their needs known, and they don't have to passively accept a situation that makes them uncomfortable. They don't know enough about the world yet to understand that when you leave you'll always come back.
They also realize they are safest, happiest, and best cared for by you, so their reluctance to part makes perfect sense especially when viewed from a survival standpoint. Put another way: You are baby's source of nourishment, both physical and emotional; therefore, baby's attachment to you is a means of survival, and when they reach a certain level of intellectual maturity, they realize this.
This stage, like so many others in childhood, will pass. In time, your baby will learn that they can separate from you, that you will return, and that everything will be okay between those two points in time. Much of this learning is based on trust, which, just as for every human being young or old, takes time to build.
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 behaviors 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 you can help your baby with separation anxiety
1. 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.
2. Don't worry about spoiling baby with your love, since quite the opposite will happen
The more you meet baby's attachment needs during babyhood, the more confident and secure they will grow up to be.
3. 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.
4. Give your baby lessons in object permanence
As your baby learns that things continue to exist even when they can't see them, they'll feel better about letting you out of their sight. Games like peek-a-boo and hide-and-seek will help her understand this phenomenon.
5. Practice with quick, safe separations
Throughout the day, create situations of brief separation. When you go into another room, whistle, sing or talk to your baby so they know you're still there, even though they can't see you.
6. Don't sneak away when you have to leave
It may seem easier than dealing with a tearful goodbye, but it will just cause the baby constant worry that you're going to disappear without warning at any given moment. The result? Even more clinginess, and diminished trust in your relationship.
7. Tell your baby what to expect
If you are going to the store and leaving baby home with Grandma, explain where you are going and tell them when you'll be back. Eventually, they'll come to understand your explanations.
8. Don't rush the parting, but don't prolong it, either
Give your baby ample time to process your leave-taking, but don't drag it out and make it more painful for both of you.
9. 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.
10. Leave your baby with familiar people
If you must leave your baby with a new caregiver, try to arrange a few visits when you'll all be together before you leave the two of them alone for the first time.
11. Invite distractions
If you're leaving your baby with a caregiver or relative, encourage that person to get your baby involved with playtime as you leave. Say a quick goodbye and let your baby be distracted by an interesting activity.
12. 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.
13. Encourage their relationship with a special toy if they have one
These are called transitional objects or loveys. They can be a comfort to baby when they're separated from you. Many babies adopt blankets or soft toys as loveys, holding them to ease any pain of separation. The lovey becomes a friend and represents security in the face of change.
14. Don't take it personally
Many babies go through a stage of attaching themselves to one parent or the other. The other parent, as well as grandparents, siblings and friends can find this difficult to accept, but try to reassure them that it's just a temporary and normal phase of development and with a little time and gentle patience it will pass.
This article is an excerpt from Gentle Baby Care by Elizabeth Pantley. (McGraw-Hill, 2003)
You might also like:
- 6 signs your child might have anxiety—and how to help
- I needed my son's security blanket more than he did
- The bittersweet reality of separation anxiety
1. 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.