If your friendly baby who once loved the attention of strangers is now more apprehensive and fearful around new people or when you're not around, chances are he may be experiencing separation anxiety. It's not unusual for older babies to experience separation anxiety whenever a primary caregiver is not around or when faced with a stranger.
Understanding Separation Anxiety in Infancy
It's important to know that infant separation anxiety is a normal stage of development. This happens when your baby develops "object permanence," and he is aware you still exist even if he can't see you. Your baby does not yet understand that your departure is not permanent, and this can leave him feeling unsettled and upset during your absence. Your child's fear may be worsened by the presence of strangers. Infants can display separation anxiety as early as four months of age but most will exhibit separation anxiety around nine months of age.
Recognizing a Baby's Separation Anxiety
Separation anxiety during infancy is a healthy phase of development. The length of time this period will last will vary greatly depending on a baby's temperament and the parent response during this period. Most times children will have less anxiety by the age of two when they begin to understand parents may be out of sight but will eventually return. Each child will react differently during this phase. Wong's Essential Pediatrics (p. 663) notes that normal responses during this period may include:
- Crying when you leave the room or in new situations
- Clinging to you
- Avoiding or rejecting attention from others
- Waking up and crying at night when he once slept through the night
- Refusing to go to sleep without having a parent nearby
Help Your Baby Deal With Separation Anxiety
It's important to help your child feel secure so he is better able to handle periods of separation. There are several things you can do to help your baby overcome his fears. These include:
- Cuddling and comforting your baby one when you are together
- Comforting and reassuring him when he is afraid
- Introducing new people and places to your loved one over time
- When at home, let your baby crawl into another (safe) room by himself for a short period of time to help him gain independence
- Announcing when you leave the room and telling him that you are coming back; then come back
- Giving your baby a transitional object like a blanket or stuffed animal to help with separation
- Comforting and reassuring a baby that wakes in the middle of the night by patting and soothing
- Playing peek-a-boo with your loved one. This activity helps improve your baby's understanding object permanence.
Tips to Help Parent With Infant Separation Anxiety
Separation anxiety can be tough on parents as you witness your sweet and social little one meltdown in the arms of friends or family. There are a number of strategies that you can implement to make this transition period easier.
Time When You Leave Your Baby in Daycare or With Sitters
Try not to start your child in day care or leave him with unfamiliar people between the ages of 8 months and 1 year if you can help it. This is when separation anxiety is most likely to first appear. Leaving when your baby when he is hungry, tired, or restless may also make the situation worse. Try to schedule your outings after naps and mealtimes.
Practice Leaving Your Baby With Caregivers
Introduce new people and places slowly over time. Practice leaving your child with caregivers for short periods so he can get used to being away from you.
Be Consistent With Drop Off and Pick Up
Try to be consistent with drop-offs. Do the same rituals at the same time every day. A routine can help your child build trust and independence.
Keep Your Promises
Make sure you return when you tell your child you will. This helps your baby build trust and confidence.
Give Your Baby Your Full Attention
When you leave, make sure your child has your full attention. Provide your baby with love and affection and say goodbye quickly even when he protests.
Build Trust and Independence in Your Baby
As much as it breaks your heart to see your baby cry or throw a tantrum because you are leaving, don't let your own anxiety show. By creating consistent routines during this transitional phase, your baby will become confident and independent in no time.