If you’ve recently found yourself sneaking out of the room so your baby doesn’t cry when they realize you’re not there, welcome to parenting a baby with separation anxiety!
It’s stressful and frustrating when you can’t leave your baby with someone else long enough to go to the bathroom. While it may feel special to be so wanted, it also tugs at your heartstrings to leave. For working parents — or any parent that just needs a break — separation anxiety can feel like a lot of pressure.
What can you do to help your baby if they’re showing signs of separation anxiety? Is it normal? How long will this last and what if your baby isn’t sleeping well at night because of it? Don’t worry. We’ve got the answers you need to get through this stage without losing your mind.
Work, adult-only events, or even just going on a date with your partner mean separation from your little one, no matter how much of a fit they may throw beforehand. What can you do to help your baby have an easier time? You might try:
- Offering calm support. Reassure your child that there is nothing to be scared of, that you will return, and that they can have fun with toys and other people in the meantime. A hug, a big smile, and a calm voice will go a long way in showing your little one there is nothing to fear!
- Sticking to routines whenever possible. Anticipating what to expect will help your child feel more confident. Teaching other caregivers your usual routines can also offer your baby the comfort of predictability.
- Practicing. Practicing short periods of separation with people and situations your child is already familiar with can help. As the saying goes, practice makes perfect! Nothing feels sadder than walking away from your child as they are crying. But by providing reassurance first, leaving them in a fun situation, and returning with a big smile on your face, happy to see them, you will quickly teach your little one that there is no need to worry.
Separation anxiety is a normal part of development that most babies will experience at some point (or multiple points!) in the first few years of their life. According to the Mayo Clinic, you can expect your child to outgrow this stage by age 3.
While it may seem hard to believe, the crying fits your little one has when you leave the room are actually good signs!
Your child will develop an understanding of object permanence in the first year of their life. Once this happens, they will understand that just because you aren’t visibly there, you haven’t disappeared! They’ll want to know where you are and why you aren’t with them.
As a child ages, they begin to develop a stronger attachment to the adults in their lives. This means they’re developing a healthy bond. But as a result, they’ll desire to be near you and show preference for the people they feel the strongest connections with (typically mom and dad).
It’s important to note that separation anxiety is not the same thing as stranger anxiety, though they may overlap at times. Stranger anxiety is a normal developmental stage where a small child may express distress about being around unfamiliar people and caregivers.
On the other hand, separation anxiety occurs when your baby is upset about being separated from a preferred person — even if they are in the care of a familiar caregiver.
Separation anxiety is most common in infants between 8 and 12 months, though it may start earlier and can definitely reappear later.
According to the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), most babies experience a robust separation anxiety around 9 months of age. Many children will experience several phases of it before they turn 2 years old.
Signs of separation anxiety can include:
- clinging to parents
- extreme crying or temper tantrums when separated from parent or primary caregiver
- refusing to do things that require separation
- refusal to sleep alone or waking frequently in the night, crying out
Separation anxiety typically appears in the first few years of a child’s life, but generally won’t last more than a couple of weeks at a time. Most children outgrow separation anxiety by around 3 years of age.
If your child experiences separation anxiety at night, you may notice that they struggle to go to sleep, wake more frequently, or even appear to wake up from nightmares. This can mean less sleep and a lot of sadness for both of you.
While you may be tempted to let your baby start sleeping with you, there are other tricks you can try first to help your little one sleep on their own:
- If you haven’t yet established a bedtime routine, now would be a great time to start. Not only can it help induce sleepiness, but it helps your little one to know what to expect and feel confident that you’ll be there when they wake.
- If you already have a bedtime routine, it’s best to continue following it because it offers stability and comfort.
- Try to avoid sneaking away! This can make your baby more distressed when they wake to find you not there.
- Avoid creating bad habits you’ll have to break in the future. This might mean not taking your child out of their crib and rocking them back to sleep, or allowing them to sleep in your bed with you. Instead, you might try singing or speaking softly while rubbing their back.
- Remember to keep yourself calm and relaxed! Your baby will pick up on your mood.
While separation anxiety is a completely normal part of your child’s development, it can also be stressful.
Remember that — in the grand scheme of things — this stage should pass fairly quickly. A big smile, some comforting words, and lots of reassurance that you’ll always come back can go a long way.