When Katherine Dolan took her three-month-old daughter, Ella-Anne, for a workplace visit during her mat leave, she started to fuss and cry whenever someone else held her and Dolan was briefly out of sight. This reaction persisted until Ella-Anne was around 14 months old and began to gradually ease off. “Whenever she was physically away from me, she would be uncomfortable and upset and cry,” she says. “It was so difficult for her and for me to see her in distress. It was frustrating for my husband because he wanted to give me a break and she just wouldn’t settle.” This is separation anxiety, which is likely your baby’s first emotional milestone.
You won’t be reaching for your phone to capture the moment, though. Separation anxiety often features full-on sobbing, epic fussing and difficulty consoling your baby when you’re out of sight. While it’s gut-wrenching to see your little one upset, it’s actually a sign of a secure attachment, says Sarah Rosensweet, a parenting coach in Toronto. “It’s healthy, good and normal,” she says. “Babies are wired for connection with a caregiver.” It shows that your baby recognizes you and feels secure with you. Still, that doesn’t make coping with the fallout any easier for you or your babe. Here’s what you need to know and how to deal with separation anxiety.
Separation anxiety generally starts between six and 12 months, peaks between 10 and 18 months and fades by age two.
If your baby is having “early separation anxiety” (say, at three or four months of age), it’s more about developmentally feeling that something isn’t quite right because your scent or voice isn’t close at hand rather than cognitively realizing that you’re not in the room.
Separation anxiety is just part of your baby’s development: They suddenly understand that you can leave but don’t realize that you’ll come back and feel worried. They’re in the process of learning about object permanence, which means that they understand that something continues to exist even if they can’t see it. Some kiddos adapt fairly quickly, while others struggle more and longer, and it’s often just a matter of temperament. Ella-Anne’s younger brother, Brady, would become a little agitated when their mom was out of sight but not to the same level.
Parents are often worried that their child will turn into a clingy 10-year-old, says Rosensweet, but that’s usually not the case. “Attachment is the way your kids develop independence,” she says. “You’re a safe home base to explore from. They know you’re going to be there and they can count on you, so they can take literal and figurative steps away from you.” The main thing to remember, she says, is to honour your baby’s desire to be with you as much as you can. “Know that it’s a phase and it will pass,” she says. “You don’t need to push them to independence.” That was Dolan’s approach, which meant that she spent a lot of time close to Ella-Anne in her first year. “I did a lot of reading, went to Dr. Google and asked friends, but in the end, I went with what made me feel comfortable. I felt like she would eventually learn to be OK without me and that we could take it step by step.”
Like most phases, this is something you just have to ride out, but there are some things you can do to help you and your baby get through it and feel better.
Stick to routines: Separation anxiety at naptime, bedtime and nighttime wakings is pretty common, says Carrie Prowse, a child sleep consultant at Little Star Sleep Solutions (littlestarsleepsolutions.com) in Winnipeg. “Create a short, predictable routine for your child so that they can feel comfortable, regardless of who puts them down for naps or bedtime,” she says. “Those cues can really help cue the production of melatonin [the] and make your child feel safe and secure when it comes to any sleep situation.” A bedtime ritual of having a bath, putting on PJs, singing a song and going to bed works well—just skip the bath before naptime, of course. “Studies have shown that babies pick up on key phrases as early as three months of age,” she adds. “Put your baby in the crib and say something like ‘Good night, I love you’ several times in a row. It’s a way to give them comfort and support.” Remember that when your baby is sick or extra-tired, their separation anxiety may ramp up.
Nurture independent play: Starting at around nine months, when your baby can sit up independently and consistently, it’s fine to set up a safe, childproof space (a play yard or an area where you can see them but they can’t see you) where your baby can explore without you directly by their side. “If you don’t let them go more than arm’s reach, they’ll feel insecure when you’re away from them,” says Prowse. “Once they can develop independent play skills in a safe space, they’ll establish self-confidence for when you’re not in the room with them.” Peekaboo and similar games are ways of helping babies learn that people can go away and come back, says Rosensweet.
Keep goodbyes short and sweet: When you are apart, do your best to leave your baby with someone they know well, such as a grandparent or familiar babysitter. “Make goodbyes quick and pleasant,” says Rosensweet. “Project confidence that you know they can handle it.” Babies respond to tone of voice, even if they don’t understand the words, so their caregivers can say soothing things about mom or dad being back soon. Distraction after a parent leaves is a good technique, too, and it’s one that Dolan and her mom used when their grandma was babysitting.