It’s a common scene at any daycare, playground or birthday party: a crying child clinging to a mom who’s desperately trying to convince her little one to let go and join the fun. Almost all children have some aspect of separation anxiety during the first six years of life, with some babies exhibiting symptoms as early as their first few months of life.
From the time newborns become aware of the world around them, they begin to form relationships with the people in their lives—and learn that certain people (such as you) are vital to their happiness and survival. Since they’re unaware of how the world works, it’s not surprising that your baby cries when you are out of sight. He’s simply protecting himself from a potential loss of his mama.
Since this is the most obvious and identifiable sign of your child’s love and trust in you, try to embrace separation anxiety as a positive sign. Don’t fret about his clinginess—it’s evidence that the bond you’ve worked so hard to create is holding.
What Causes Separation Anxiety?
Separation anxiety is a perfectly normal developmental adaptation of a child’s emotional and mental growth. While it doesn’t have a particular “cause”—nothing you’ve done has “made” your baby feel scared of being alone—what you do can directly heighten or reduce your little one’s anxiety. Eventually, he’ll become more comfortable with others taking care of his needs, but until he’s mature enough to reach this point, try these tips to help your baby learn to understand, accept and deal with separation from you.
- The “bye-bye” game. Take “peek-a-boo” to the next level, using this game to show that even when your baby can’t see you, you’re still around. Say “bye-bye” to him, and duck behind a corner or piece of furniture. After a few seconds, pop out and say, “Hi baby!” Play this game every day, and use the same actions when you leave the room or the house.
- Skip the in-arms transfer. Avoid handing the baby to the sitter on your way out the door, since this can increase anxiety about your departure. Instead, make your exit when your baby’s playing on the floor, or sitting in a swing or highchair. Have the nanny engage him, and say a quick goodbye. Encourage the sitter to pick the baby up after you’re gone, acting as a sort of “rescuer”—which will help them bond while you’re away.
- Encourage independent playtime. Many children wake up after a snooze, and are content to look around, play with a toy or daydream. Your kid can enjoy alone time and learn to be his own best company. Next time your baby rouses from a nap, listen carefully– is he calling to you and fussing for attention, or is he just taking a few quiet minutes for himself? If your tiny explorer’s content, then keep an ear on him—but allow him this independent playtime.
- Avoid unnecessary separation.Some people will try to convince you that it’s important to force your child to deal with separations, but it’s okay to opt out of “mommy” time to play with your baby instead. No study proves that a child who’s forced to face his fear head-on will overcome it easier or more quickly than one who’s allowed to adjust on his own time frame. Instead, work with your child’s needs to gently and lovingly nudge him towards the goal of independence.
Nearly all kids experience some aspect of separation anxiety—for some, the stage begins as early as a few months old. For others, the effects begin later. Some children have very visible, obvious indicators of their feelings, while their peers have less apparent reactions. There’s no exact pattern or set of symptoms, but almost all children have it to some degree. The following behaviors are most typically used to define normal separation anxiety:
- Crying when a parent’s out of sight
- Strong preference for only one parent over all other people
- Fear of strangers, or of family and friends who are not frequently seen
- Resistance to separation at bedtime or nap time
- Waking at night crying for a parent
- Regression to an earlier stage of development, such as thumb-sucking or “baby-talk”
- Anxiety that is easily eliminated upon a parent’s appearance
This Too Shall Pass
Separation anxiety doesn’t have a specific beginning or an exact end. Instead, it shows itself in peaks and valleys—good days and bad days, good weeks and bad, and even good years followed by bad weeks. The shifts from confidence to anxiety and back again many times during the first six to eight years of life can be bewildering, but this unpredictable behavior is very normal. Gaining the maturity and skills to handle separation with confidence is a process, not a single event.
This stage, like so many others in childhood, will pass. In time, your child will learn that he 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 and experience, which, just as for every human being young or old, takes time to build.
Parenting educator Elizabeth Pantley is the president of Better Beginnings, Inc., a family resource and education company. She is also the author of twelve parenting books, including the popular "No-Cry" series.