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Do all babies experience separation anxiety?
Yes, to a degree. Separation anxiety is a normal stage of emotional development that starts when babies begin to understand that things and people exist even when they're not present – a concept called object permanence.
At certain stages, most babies or toddlers will show true anxiety and become upset at the prospect – or reality – of being separated from a parent. If you think about separation anxiety in evolutionary terms, it makes sense: A defenseless baby would naturally get upset over being taken away from the person who protects and cares for him.
In many ways, attitudes about babies and separations are cultural. Western countries tend to stress autonomy from a very early age. But in many other cultures, infants are rarely separated from their mother in the first year of life.
Regardless of the origins of this developmental stage, it's frustrating for both babies and parents. The good news is that separation anxiety will pass – and you can take steps to make it more manageable. In the meantime, try to appreciate the sweetness of knowing that to your child, you're number one.
When does it most commonly occur?
Babies can show signs of separation anxiety as early as 6 or 7 months, but for most babies it peaks between 10 to 18 months and eases up by 2 years.
Most commonly, separation anxiety strikes when you leave your child to go to work or run an errand.
Your baby can also experience separation anxiety at night, safely tucked in her crib with you right in the next room. Separation anxiety usually eases by the time babies are about 24 months old.
How can I help my baby through it?
There are several things you can do to help your baby through separation anxiety:
Arrange childcare with people familiar to your baby. If you have to leave your baby – when you return to work, for example – try leaving him with people he already knows, like his father, grandmother, or aunt. Your baby may still protest, but he might adjust to your absence more easily when surrounded by well-known faces.
Let your baby get to know a new caregiver first. If you need to leave your child with someone he doesn't know, give him a chance to get to know his caregiver while you're still around. (See details below.)
Make it routine. Decide on a short-and-sweet ritual and stick to it every time you say goodbye. A predictable routine helps your child build trust in you and in his own ability to get through the separation.
How should I prepare my baby for separations?
As with any transition, give your baby an opportunity to get used to the idea gradually. Whether you're leaving her with a family member or a paid childcare provider, try these suggestions:
Practice at home. It will be easier for your baby to cope with your absence if she's the one who initiates a separation. Let her crawl off to another room on her own (one where you're sure she'll be safe unsupervised briefly), and wait a couple minutes before going after her.
You can also tell your baby you're leaving the room, where you're going, and that you'll be back. Either way, your child will learn that everything will be okay when you're gone for a minute or two – and that you'll always come back.
Give your baby time to get comfortable. Hire a new sitter to visit and play with your baby several times before leaving them alone for the first time. For your first real outing, ask the sitter to arrive about 30 minutes before you depart, so that she and the baby can be well engaged before you step out the door.
Take the same approach if you're dropping off your baby at a friend or relative's house – show up early enough to get your baby acquainted and comfortable with the caregiver.
Always say goodbye. Kiss and hug your baby when you leave. Tell her where you're going and when you'll be back, but don't prolong your goodbyes. Resist the urge to sneak out the back door. Your baby will only become more upset if she thinks you disappeared into thin air.
Keep it light. Your baby is tuned in to how you feel, so show warmth and enthusiasm for the caregiver you've chosen. Try not to cry or act upset if your baby starts crying – at least not while she can see you. You'll both get through this. The caregiver will probably tell you later that your baby's tears stopped even before you were out of the driveway.
Once you leave, leave. Repeated trips back into the house or daycare center to check on your baby only make it harder on you, your child, and the caregiver.
Try a trial at first. Limit the first night or afternoon out to no more than an hour. As you and your baby become more familiar with the sitter or the childcare setting, you can extend your outings.
How can I cope with my baby's clinginess?
Separation anxiety can be hard on parents too, especially if their baby gets hysterical when they leave or seems to prefer one parent over the other. You might feel guilty about leaving your baby with someone else and worry about him while you're apart. If your baby wants your attention all the time, you may feel exhausted, frazzled, or even resentful.
It's okay to have these emotions. Just keep reminding yourself that separation anxiety is normal and temporary: Your child is learning to trust you and is developing important skills on his way to independence. Although you may be feeling overwhelmed, keep in mind that separation anxiety is a sign of healthy attachment.
How should we handle nighttime separation anxiety?
Your baby's fear of being separated from you at night is very real for her, so do your best to keep the hours leading up to bedtime as nurturing and peaceful (and fun) as possible.
Spend some extra cuddle time with your baby before bed by reading, snuggling, and softly singing together.
If your baby cries for you after you put her to bed, it's fine to go to her – both to reassure her and to reassure yourself that she's okay. But make your visits brief and boring so she'll learn to fall back to sleep without a lot of help from you. Eventually, she'll be able to fall asleep on her own.
What if nothing seems to work?
Babies have different personalities, so some will experience more severe bouts of separation anxiety than others. If your child can't be comforted using simple measures, it's time to reevaluate.
Take a second look at your sitter or daycare center. The person or center may be a mismatch for your baby if your child continues to be anxious and weepy when you leave.
Leave your baby with someone he knows well for 15-minute periods. Then work your way up to one hour. Your baby will learn that when you leave you'll return, without having the added stress of being with someone unfamiliar.
Reevaluate your goodbye strategy. Do you sneak out when your baby isn't looking? Are you nervous and tense? Do you slowly back down the walk waving and crying until your baby is out of sight?
Try being more casual instead. A simple "see you later, alligator" followed by a quick hug and a kiss can do wonders for an anxious child. Your actions show him that leaving isn't big deal and that you'll be home again soon.
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