My son had been attending—and loving—his daycare since I returned to work when he was 3 months old. But, sometime around 7 months, he started going through phases where drop-off became a nightmare. He’d cry, scream, and cling to me.
What happened to my sweet, joyful child? Why did he seem to have an issue with me leaving him when he never exhibited that behavior before?
Ah, separation anxiety.
It can start anytime between 6 and 24 months, though it usually peaks at about 12 months, and starts to ease up by about the 2-year mark. While most babies experience it at some point in their young lives, it may be less intense for some and much harder for others. The phrase “Every child is different” totally applies here.
In clinical practice, I commonly hear mom concerns about “not being able to put the baby down” without him or her crying. Many resort to putting their infant in a Bjorn or other carrier just to “get things done without the baby crying.” This is not only impractical, but often unsafe for some household tasks (i.e. cooking). I also hear many versions of a story where the baby cries when mom or dad leave the room. This can occur during bedtime or daytime activities.
Another phenomenon that occurs along with separation anxiety is “stranger anxiety.” Stranger anxiety is seen when an infant is around people he or she does not see on a regular basis, resulting in crying and clinging to the parent or other familiar caregiver. It may occur when grandparents or other extended relatives visit, during group gatherings (including the first birthday party), and at routine pediatrician visits.
Dr. Leah Alexander, MD, FAAP
Rest assured, though, that this phase (or phases, as was the case with my son) is completely normal for a baby’s emotional development. Also: it won’t last forever. (Phew!)
I can attest to the fact that this developmental milestone isn’t easy. But here are some things you can try to make it more manageable in the meantime.
When does it occur?
Most often, your child will have separation anxiety when you leave him or her with another caregiver, whether it’s to run an errand, go to work, or have a date night. But, it can also rear its ugly head when you put your child to bed—or if you leave the room for any reason and your child can no longer see you.
Why does it occur?
In the first 4 to 6 months of your infant’s life, you could probably leave your sweet baby with a caregiver without much of a reaction, if any at all. That’s because your newborn completely forgot you existed as soon as you were out of sight.
Around 7 to 8 months of age (though it could be earlier or later depending on your child), your youngster suddenly understands that you exist even when they can’t see you—and they don’t like that.
If you’re going through this phase with a toddler, it’s a little different. They are much more established in their independence and want to have some control over what happens in their life. In a Parenting.com article, Sara Abbot, the associate director of the Family Resource Counseling Center in Los Angeles, explains it this way:
They know by now that you’re coming back, but they would prefer that you stick around. And because they also know that wailing will usually get a reaction, they give it their best shot.
Nemours Hospital discusses separation anxiety in more detail, and how it can present differently in infants and toddlers.
What can you do to help your child through this phase?
When my son started crying every time I left the room or dropped him off at daycare, I made the mistake of trying to sneak out when he wasn’t looking. According to the experts, however, that’s not recommended. I can attest to the fact that it didn’t work.
While my son only took a minute or two to calm down after my departure, the problem kept ocurring every morning. Once I discovered some of these tricks below, especially playing peek-a-boo frequently and establishing a ritual, my son’s temperament around my departure beganto slowly change.
But first, let’s take a look at what you don’t want to do.
What to Avoid
Sneaking away when they aren’t looking. Your child may struggle to trust you if they feel like you’re tricking them every time you leave. Ultimately, this won’t help them get over your absence any easier.
Prolonging the goodbye. I understand that the last thing you want to do is leave. All I wanted to do was hold and comfort my son for a few more minutes (or an hour). But taking a long time to do so only makes it harder for everybody—yourself, the caregiver trying to comfort your child when you leave, and your child. You’ll see helpful tips below for how to create a brief but comforting good-bye routine.
Coming back to check on them. I wanted to do this so many times, but this also makes it more difficult for your child and the caregiver. It leads your child to believe that his reaction is warranted and encourages him to keep reacting every time you leave him. His tears are merely his way of trying to persuade you to stay.
What to Do.
Practice leaving your child with others, possibly somebody they already know. Keeping your child with you at all times and not giving them a chance to practice being separated from you will only encourage their behavior. They need to practice being cared for by a babysitter or family member, even if for short periods of time.
Do a trial run with a new caregiver while you are around. If switching to a new caregiver that your baby is unfamiliar with, it can be helpful to have your little one spend time with the new nanny, sitter, or daycare while you are present. Starting with a short period of time and increasing it each time can also be helpful.
Practice peek-a-boo. Home is a baby’s safe place, so this makes the best setting for practicing. For some babies, like my son, playing peek-a-boo with a small, thin blanket or cloth is a great place to start. If you don’t feel comfortable doing that, you could always put it over your face instead. To make this more advanced, you could try walking around the corner and play peek-a-boo that way. Or let your child crawl into another room, assuming it’s a safe place for her to be unsupervised for a brief period of time, and wait a few minutes before following her.
To break the habit of your infant “being attached to the hip all the time” at home, I recommend that parents place a playpen in a separate room but still in view of wherever the parent is doing a household task. The infant is in a safe play area but can still see the parent, teaching him or her that separation is ok.
Dr. Leah Alexander, MD, FAAP
Plan departures for after a nap or meal when possible. A tired and hungry baby will not set you up for the best possible outcome.
Keep your good-bye brief (and do the same thing every time). Babies find comfort in routine. So if you make it a habit of saying and doing the same things every time you leave, you’ll create a sense of normalcy that they can rely on. Examples: a hug and a promise to return for them later today, or a kiss and a high-five. Also remember to keep it brief because drawing out your goodbye can be harder in the long run.
Be cheerful. You may feel anything but happy and calm when you leave your child with somebody else. But, this is where the phrase “fake it ’til you make it” comes in handy. Your baby will be comforted by your body language and know it’s okay to be apart from you.
Remind your child that you always return. This is usually helpful for older children who understand what you’re saying. erbalizing this truth for them helps them understand that you keep your promises. Eventually, they will learn to rely on that.
Instruct the caregiver to distract your child after you leave. It can be helpful to have the babysitter, nanny, daycare teacher, or family member distract your baby with a favorite toy or, if they’re older, a special task to make them feel helpful. One article I read suggested having them close the door behind you.
Be patient. It will take time for your baby to learn that it’s okay to be apart from you and that you will come back for her.
The AAP has some additional tips that can be helpful.
Dealing with Nighttime Separation Anxiety.
For parents dealing with children who struggle with nighttime separation anxiety, there are several things you can try.
Extra playtime with you before bed. Give him or her undivided attention and snuggles in the hours leading up to bedtime.
Establish a routine that you follow every night. As mentioned above, routines often make children feel safe and can be a helpful way to calm their fears of being separated from you.
Don’t cave for the path of least resistance. Many times, exhaustion and frustration will lead us to “do almost anything” to get our child to sleep, like resorting to the pacifier or allowing them to sleep in bed with us. But creating these new habits (or re-introducing former ones) demonstrates to your child that there is something scary that they need extra comfort to handle. By resisting these things, you’ll show your child that there isn’t anything to be afraid of when you leave the room.
I have many parents who allow their infant or toddler to fall asleep with them in the parent’s bed or other location of the home. Once asleep, the parent transfers the infant to his/her own bed. Waking in a different location from where he or she fell asleep is startling at this developmental age and can exacerbate separation anxiety.
Nemour’s Hospital has some additional recommendations.
Dr. Leah Alexander, MD, FAAP
Coping suggestions for parents.
When my son was suffering from separation anxiety, I felt a lot of emotions. On the one hand, I was secretly relieved to know I was his preferred person. That made me feel so loved! But I was often overwhelmed and frustrated by his clinginess.
I worried about him the entire time we were apart. I felt guilty about going to work or on a date night with my husband. Often, I was overwhelmed and frustrated by his actions. These are very common feelings among many moms. From one emotional mama to another, know that it’s completely normal to experience a mixture of feelings. Don’t try to fight these feelings or ignore them.
Instead, surround yourself with a great support team. I found it helpful to journal or tell my husband or my best friend what I was feeling.
I also had to keep telling myself that this will pass and that my son was probably already playing happily by the time I got to my car (and according to his daycare teachers, that was 100% true).
So remember: this phase is normal and temporary. Thank goodness!
I’ve tried all these things, and nothing is working! What should I do?
Assess your situation. According to the Mayo Clinic, a baby’s symptoms may sometimes be triggered by stress over a new childcare situation or caregiver, the recent arrival of a sibling, moving to a new home, or tension within the family. Unfortunately, some of these situations are unavoidable, so giving your child time to adjust to a new situation and practicing the advice above should help.
Trust your gut. If your child only reacts to a particular daycare teacher or babysitter, or if they are having other unexplained symptoms like sleeping trouble or changes in mood or appetite, go with your instincts and reevaluate their caregivers.
Change up your good-bye ritual. Reevaluate to make sure you aren’t taking too long to say goodbye. Check your body language to see if you’re coming across as anxious or worried. You could also try establishing a different ritual. With my son, he hated being put on the floor right after I kissed him goodbye. But, if I put him at the table with a teething wafer or some crackers, he would pleasantly wave goodbye to me when I left. I think he liked having something to do (like eat a snack) instead of just being put on the mat and expected to play.
Consult your doctor. As always, if your child’s intense or prolonged behavior concerns you, schedule a visit with your doctor.
The good news about separation anxiety: there’s no guarantee that your child will experience it. But, if your baby or toddler does struggle with it, rest assured in the fact that it is just a phase.
Let us know in the comments if any of these tips worked for you and your little one!
- BabyCenter.com: Separation Anxiety
- KidsHealth.org: Separation Anxiety
- Parenting.com: Separation Anxiety Age-by-Age
- MayoClinic.org: Separation Anxiety