Around their first birthday most children develop anxiety when their parents leave them with someone else. This anxiety is called separation anxiety and is a perfectly normal part of development. The process may be unsettling for both parent and child but it is normal. Understanding how and why the child is going through these feelings will help parents to develop coping strategies for the child.
Most babies younger than 6 months usually adapt easily to the care of another adult. Sometime between the age of 4 and 7 months they develop the concept of object permanence which means that they learn that things and people exist even when they’re out of sight. This means that babies realize that mom and dad do exist even when they aren’t there. Unfortunately they don’t yet understand the concept of time and don’t know if you’ll return or not.
As baby grows they become more independent but they also are even more uncertain about being separated from their parent. This is when they become agitated and upset when their parent tries to leave. Whether it’s the next room, the office or outside in the yard, it’s all the same to the baby.
The timing of this separation anxiety in the life of a child comes differently for child to child. Some children go through it a bit earlier and others much later, such as between 18 months and 2 years. Others may never experience it.
The length of the separation anxiety can vary depending upon the response of the parent, temperament of the child and the situation. Separation can last through elementary school depending upon the child or can appear suddenly out of the blue in an older child if another problem is present such as bullying.
But separation anxiety can bring about varying feelings in the parent as well. While it may be gratifying for the parent to know that their infant is bonding to them as they are bonding to the child it can also bring out feelings of guilt about taking time out to work or time for themselves. And parents can also feel overwhelmed by the amount of attention the baby seems to need.
There are some strategies that parents can use to help decrease the anxiety and resulting crying that infant’s experience. Timing is everything when it comes to approaching all children. When you are considering daycare choices try not to change up the environment between the ages of 8 months and 15 months, even if they don’t yet have separation anxiety. If you can schedule departures after naps and mealtimes when the baby is more rested and able to cope with stress.
Children as young as 9 months can ‘practice’. Introduce new people gradually to the life of the child. If there will be a new babysitter then invite them over so they can spend time with the baby while you are present. If there is a new daycare or preschool take a few visits to get the child used to the environment. Practice leaving your child with one of the caregivers for short periods of time so they can get used to being away.
Be calm and consistent with your baby. They take their cues from you. If you are calm and do the same thing consistently with each visit they will feel more secure because you seem secure about leaving them in this environment. Reassure your baby that you’ll be back and use concepts that the child will understand – such as after lunch. Give your child your full attention when you are leaving and don’t return. Some moms find comfort standing outside the doorway and waiting until their child stops crying. But returning to the room will only make the situation worse.
Follow through on your promises to your child. It’s very important that you return exactly when you say you will. This is how your child will develop trust and confidence that they can make it through the time they are apart from the parent.
Remember that separation anxiety is temporary. The phase passes. Trust your instincts about your own child. If they refuse to go to a certain babysitter or daycare center or shows other signs of tension such as sleeping problems or loss of appetite then there could be a problem with the child care situation. If you feel there is a problem the remove your child as soon as is possible and find another option.
- KidsHealth: Separation Anxiety
- BabyCenter: Separation Anxiety
- MayoClinic: Separation anxiety
- MedlinePlus: Separation Anxiety
- PsychCentral: Separation Anxiety Disorder