Before your other foot passes through the doorway, you hear the most dreaded sound: a cry. It starts softly but continues on and gets louder and louder. You sigh for the fifth time and go back to your 7-month-old, who does not want you out of your sight. How long is this going to last, and why does it happen?
Separation anxiety in babies is part of their normal emotional development. This usually happens at around 9 months old and may extend up to 2-3 years old. Some ways to manage this include a consistent routine before leaving, calm behavior, and a quick goodbye.
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What is separation anxiety?
Separation anxiety is a stage of development when your baby cries and gets upset whenever they get separated from you. They prefer to always have you within their sight. Whether it’s a few minutes or a few hours, when you leave, they wreak havoc.
I’m sure that for the first few hours, it feels nice that your child always wants to be with you. But in the next few days, you’ll realize that you can’t leave the room without your baby bursting into tears. Separation anxiety can quickly escalate into a nightmare if you don’t tackle it head-on.
Why does it happen?
Why does separation anxiety happen? Is it something unusual and a cause for worry? Is it normally seen in babies? Let’s lay out a few things about separation anxiety first.
Separation anxiety and “object permanence”
When your baby is 4-7 months old, they will quickly forget if a toy disappears in front of them. But by the time they turn 8-9 months old, they develop what we call “object permanence.” If you do the exact same thing, they realize that the toy still exists and they learn to look for it. It’s what they use to play peek-a-boo with you!
What makes separation anxiety difficult for babies is that they don’t know when you’ll come back. They don’t understand what time is. If you disappear, they don’t know if you leave forever or come back. They also don’t know the difference between 5 minutes and 5 hours.
When does it start?
The American Academy of Pediatrics states that separation anxiety most often occurs at 9 months of age. Some babies can develop it as early as 5 months of age, while others skip this age group and develop anxiety later on.
Is separation anxiety a good thing?
Does this mean that separation anxiety is a good thing? Yes, if it happens at the right age.
Separation anxiety is a part of a child’s normal development process. This means your child has a strong emotional attachment with you, and they recognize that you are their parent. It’s a healthy bond between parent and child.
What can you do about it?
Lots of parents have gone through this ordeal. It takes a lot of patience and adjustment. It may seem daunting at first, but we all know you have a lot more love for your baby. You can overcome all the challenges you’ll face.
Here are different ways you can manage your anxious child before you leave the room:
Stick to a routine
Create a routine that you could use for situations that require you to leave your baby. Every time you leave, make it a habit to follow this, so that they will slowly understand when you have to go. More importantly, it makes them realize that you’ll always return.
As much as possible, leave your baby with someone he or she is familiar with. This could be your partner or a family member. They may still squeal and cry, but chances are, your child can recover quickly.
If you need to leave your infant with a new caregiver, spend some time first with both of them. Let your child associate you with the caregiver and familiarize themselves with their face. This lessens their anxiety.
Keep calm and cool
Speaking in a calm voice is reassuring to your baby. Even if they don’t understand what you’re saying, hearing you talk soothes them, making it easier for you to quietly leave the room.
It’s not just your voice that needs to be calm. Studies show that babies can feel and reflect back the feelings you project outwards. There are times when it’s really difficult to leave your little one behind, but it’s important to project positive feelings as you leave the room.
Use your scent
One way to keep your baby feel secured is to sleep with a small toy or blanket for a few days to get your scent on it. Leave the toy or blanket with your child as you leave. Your smell will comfort them, at least for a few hours.
Say goodbye first!
At the end of the routine, give a quick goodbye. A simple kiss or hug will do. Let your child see you before you go. If you sneak out, it leaves the impression that you can disappear at any moment. At this rate, separation anxiety won’t resolve anytime soon!
At night, having a bedtime routine will also help your baby overcome periods of separation. This could include a warm bath, a quick reading session, lullabies, or even hugs or kisses. Some parents even record their voices when reading a book and play this for nights when anxiety is intense.
When will separation anxiety end?
Separation anxiety could last until your child becomes a toddler. Some parents have experienced raising kids with separation anxiety up until 3 years old! For some older kids, separation anxiety can also be triggered by something new, such as a new caregiver or moving to a new home.
It can also happen to them
While stranger anxiety is normal expected in infancy, it’s not necessarily the same case for other age groups.
Your child may skip separation anxiety during infancy, only for it to happen while they’re 1-2 years old. While this may be a late manifestation of separation anxiety, it may be harder for these toddlers to calm down.
It’s uncommon to see separation anxiety develop in school-aged children and adolescents. Usually, their independence should have been well established by this time.
Sometimes these are caused by certain triggers, such as a transfer or move-out to a new area, problems with friendships and family relationships, or school-related issues. It’s best to see a doctor when separation anxiety happens in these age groups.
Separation anxiety in babies is a part of childhood development. It usually starts at 9 months old and may persist up to 2-3 years old. There are different ways to deal with anxiety in babies. You can establish a consistent routine and a calm behavior before leaving.
Older children can also have signs of separation anxiety, but this could mean an underlying issue or disorder that may need to be evaluated by a doctor.
Sarah is a healthcare writer, motivated by her love of reading books while growing up. She took up human biology and further studies in medicine, in order to fulfill her passion for helping kids. While she isn’t a biological mother yet, she has taken a young Siberian husky named Indy under her wing. She would love to someday travel the world and meet kids from different cultural backgrounds.