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It’s hard enough to say goodbye to your baby when you leave for work or run errands, but it becomes even more difficult when those goodbyes are also marked with tears and tantrums. According to experts, separation anxiety is a normal part of a baby’s development. Even so, it’s still an unsettling phase for infants and parents to work through.
Although it may seem impossible to completely avoid tear-filled goodbyes, knowledge is power. By learning more about what causes separation anxiety and by equipping yourself with tried-and-true coping strategies, you and your baby will soon be waving separation anxiety goodbye.
What Is Separation Anxiety?
Separation anxiety refers to the anxiety that a baby experiences when they’re separated from their caregiver, even if it’s for a short period of time. Because babies don’t have an understanding of time or object permanence, they aren’t capable of realizing that a parent who leaves will inevitably come back. Because of this, babies experiencing separation anxiety may cry, throw a tantrum, or become more clingy when their caregiver leaves.
Although this process can be difficult for both infants and their caregivers, baby separation anxiety is ultimately a sign that the baby is developing a strong attachment to the caregivers in their lives. This healthy, secure bond between a baby and caregiver is important, as it lays the groundwork for social and emotional development throughout life.
So, how exactly do you know whether your baby is experiencing separation anxiety?
Separation anxiety is rooted in the fear that a parent or caregiver will leave and never return. Because each baby is different, babies and toddlers may display their anxiety differently. Generally, though, these are the typical signs of separation anxiety in babies:
Babies can experience separation anxiety as early as 4-5 months old. However, most babies start showing signs of separation anxiety at the 8-9 month mark. By that point in their development, they have an understanding of object permanence. But they don’t have an understanding of time. Thus, they become anxious about not knowing when you’ll return.
How long does separation anxiety last? Generally, anxiety will neutralize at 3 years. As a baby begins to understand that their caregivers will return, separation anxiety will begin to fade.
However, each baby is different. Some babies may have separation for a number of years, and other babies may not display separation anxiety at all.
If your baby is experiencing separation anxiety, take comfort in knowing that it will eventually fade. As babies and toddlers mature and grow, they become more secure with their attachments and can deal with goodbyes more effectively. But, that doesn’t exactly help you while you're in the midst of it. So, what exactly can you do right now? Here are some strategies for decreasing anxiety when it’s time to say goodbye.
Imagine your morning alarm goes off at different times every day, and your day-to-day life is completely unpredictable. Chances are you’d feel a bit cranky and unsettled. The same is true of your baby. Routine is important for adults and infants alike, especially when it comes to separation anxiety. A regular daily routine for your baby will provide stability and will help reduce stress of the unknown.
Similarly, creating a routine for when you say goodbye can give your baby a sense of consistency. Whether you give them a kiss, sing their favorite song, or introduce a transitional object such as a toy or blanket, creating a goodbye ritual is an effective way for your baby to create recognizable patterns in the goodbye process.
Decreasing separation anxiety depends on a baby feeling securely attached to their caregivers. Because of this, taking your baby to too many new places or introducing them to a number of new people can increase overall anxiety. If new caregivers are introduced, give your baby time to adapt to the caregiver before you leave the two of them alone. And if your child is old enough, verbally let them know that you’re leaving them with this person, but will return later.
As tempting as it may be to sneak out the door while your baby is distracted or preoccupied with another caregiver, that technique can actually create more harm than good. The more you sneak out, the more your baby will develop increased anxiety that you could leave at any time. This actually worsens separation anxiety.
Babies are acutely aware of your mood and your temperament. If your baby notices that you get upset and frustrated when they cry, it will only intensify the anxiety. Similarly, although it may be hard for you to say goodbye to your child, try to wait until you’re out of their vicinity before you shed a tear or two. By remaining composed and positive, you reduce the risk of heightening an already tense situation for your baby.
Although separation anxiety can be upsetting for both infants and their caregivers, it is a normal phase of development that they’ll eventually outgrow. Until then, continue to provide a safe and secure environment for your baby whenever you’re around them, and create routines and goodbye rituals that they can depend on. Doing so will help foster a sense of security that will be instrumental in ridding separation anxiety once and for all.