10 Tips for Alleviating Baby’s Separation Anxiety
by Alan Greene, MS, FAAP
Most healthy babies and toddlers
exhibit at least one phase of
stranger/separation anxiety as part of normal development. They begin to get upset when others come too close – even regular babysitters, grandparents (who may feel heartbroken), or one of the parents
(who may feel very unsettled by this). At about the same time, most babies
begin to fuss and cry whenever you leave their sight, sometimes even to step into the next room!
The first peak of separation anxiety usually takes place in the second half of the first year, and lasts for about 2 to 4 months, though there is great variability in this. And, there is often a second peak in the second half of the next year that usually fades as language skills improve. In some children, the two peaks run together, resulting in separation anxiety for up to 8 months or so at a stretch.
What is separation anxiety?
and stranger anxiety both coincide with a new intellectual skill called object permanence
. They now remember objects and specific people that are not present. They will search for toys
that have dropped out of sight. They are able to call up a mental image of what (or who) they are missing. They don’t want a stranger, because the stranger is not you
During this phase, they understand that people leave, but they don’t yet understand that people return. And, they can tell from your actions that you are about to leave, so anxiety begins to build even before you’re gone. Since they don’t understand returning, they have no idea when – or even if – you will come back. And they miss you intensely. For them, each separation seems endless.
Here are 10 tips to help ease your baby’s anxiety during this difficult time:
1. Once children have learned about leaving, you want them to learn about returning. Separation/return games can be quite helpful - the classics being peek-a-boo and “where’s the baby?”
I like playing peek-a-boo with the feet. With the baby lying on his back, lift the legs “up, up, up” to hide your face, and then “Peek-a-boo!” as you open the legs wide. Often babies love to open their legs themselves to find you.
In “Where’s the Baby?”, drop a lightweight cloth over your baby’s head, ask, “Where’s the baby?” and pull the cloth again grinning and saying, “There you are!” Soon your baby will delight at pulling the cloth off and laughing. The cloth can also be placed over your own head, or you can partially hide behind a chair or around a corner where you will be easily discovered.
2. Hiding and finding objects is another fun form of separation/return play; under clothes or buckets, anywhere the baby can delight in finding them.
3. Try practice separations. With practice separations, tell your baby that you will be going to another room and that you’ll be back soon (even though the baby will not understand the words yet). If there’s crying, repeat the reassurance that you’ll be back soon. Then pop back in smiling and say, “Hello”. “Bye-bye” is one of the first words most babies learn. You want to teach them to understand hello as soon as you can. Gradually make these practice separations longer and longer. The baby will learn that you’ll come and that it’s okay when you are gone for a bit.
4. When you really leave, good-byes should be brief, affectionate, and with a clear statement that you will be back. When you must leave, do not make a big fuss over leaving and do not sneak out. Children need a simple, direct, “Bye-bye, I’ll be back.” Be sure to tell them when you’ll be back.
5. Keep calm. Anxiety can be contagious and the more anxious you are about leaving or about others caring for your baby, the more anxious your baby will be.
6. Use distractions. If the caregiver can engage your child with a toy or mirror, it can make your leaving easier.
7. If you are leaving your child at a day care or someplace other than home, the separation will be easier if you spend a few minutes there with your child (and also with the new caregiver).
8. Transitional objects, such as blankets or stuffed animals, are healthy ways to minimize separation anxiety. Transitional objects are objects that children have bonded to and feel comforted by.
9. Regular routines make the “returning” lesson easier to learn. If there’s a habit or routine of a parent‘s returning at a regular time or after a regular activity, the absence can become easier to accept because the child knows what to expect.
10. Separation anxiety is more pronounced when children are tired, hungry, or sick. Try to time separations when they are happy and satisfied.
Even though it can be heartbreaking to leave a crying baby, understand this is perfectly normal - your baby will be fine and so will you!