Separation anxiety is when a baby or child becomes distressed when separated from their primary caregiver. It's a normal part of growing up, and most commonly develops between 10-18 months, although it can start from as early as 6 months. At this age a baby becomes more aware of their surroundings. Until then, new situations and new people unfazed them, but as they get older they become more self aware and worry that if a parent leaves the room, they might not come back. This is because they have developed 'object permanence', so they understand that even if something is out of sight, it still exists. This means they are able to miss people they love even when they can't see them. Separation anxiety usually passes by 24 months, as at this age children know that their parents are going to come back, and also they have a natural desire to assert their independence.
How Can I Help my Baby Get Over Separation Anxiety?
If your baby gets very distressed, try to minimise separation until they are a bit older. This obviously only works if you don't have to return to work, or have any other unavoidable commitments.
To help your child get over separation anxiety, they need to know you will return. When you leave them with your chosen caregiver, explain that you have to go, but will be back. For example; 'Mummy has to go out for a little while now, I'll be back soon'. Kiss and cuddle your baby, then add 'Mummy loves you, bye bye' and make a quick exit. Your baby might be too young at the moment to understand your words, but if you use the same phrase every time, she will begin to understand that it means you are going to come back. When you pick her up, say 'Mummy's back, I told you I'd be back and here I am!'. Read your baby stories about children going to nursery (ask your local library for some books on this topic), so your baby can see in picture form that when the Mummy leaves, she always comes back.
How Should I Prepare My Baby For Separations?
Don't drag out your goodbyes. This will make it more distressing for your baby as they'll get more and more upset and you'll have to peel them off you. Make it quick and keep the tone of your voice light. If you get upset and look worried, they will think that there is something to fear from you leaving. Also don't be tempted to nip out while your baby is asleep, or in a different room. When they realise you are gone, your baby will be more upset. They will also become more anxious and clingy when you are with them, as they never know when you will 'disappear'.
Who Should I Leave My Baby With?
To help ease separation anxiety, your baby needs to trust the person you leave them with. Leaving them with someone they know helps, but if you are putting your child in nursery or sending to a childminder, give your child plenty of time to get to know them before you leave them on their own with their new caregiver. Nurseries usually have settling in periods, where you stay with your child and gradually leave then for longer periods of time. If you are returning to work, give yourself lots of time for the settling in period; it can sometimes take weeks and if you rush back to work before your baby is settled you may find it very difficult to cope with returning to working life and having an unhappy baby.
How Long Should I Leave My Baby For?
Don't leave your baby too long for the first few times you leave her. Keep the first time it to an hour at the most, and gradually build up the time you are gone as she gets more comfortable with you leaving.
Don't be tempted to pop back in to soothe your baby if you hear her crying as you walk out. This will make it harder on you and your baby. Be strong, and know that your baby will stop crying soon (probably before you reach the gate!) and will eventually love nursery/granny's house/childminder! Remember, too, that it is common for a baby to be happy all day and then burst into tears at the first sight of you when you come to collect them. This is a perfectly normal reaction. If possible, try to catch a glimpse of them playing before they know you are there, it will help to put your mind at ease. Make sure you do not appear to be 'spying' on the caregiver though, as it is important that they feel that you trust them to look after your child properly.