Almost any baby development book will tell you separation anxiety is an older baby phenomenon, typically occurring at about eight months of age. Before then, explains Jean Wittenberg, head of the Infant Psychiatry Program at Toronto’s Hospital for Sick Children, “the baby doesn’t have the cognitive structure to recognize mom as an individual, or to remember her when she is gone.”
Melanie Hannah might find that theory a bit hard to swallow. Her daughter, Caitlyn, is only now hitting the “official” age of separation anxiety. But, says Hannah, “She has been extremely attached to me since she was born. Until she hit 4½ months, she would not let anyone else hold her without crying and screaming hysterically, to the point where she could no longer vocalize because she was so out of breath.”
Few babies are so extreme in their reactions. Yet most parents have no doubt that their younger babies—under six months or even three months— recognize and prefer their primary caregivers (usually mom). After all, even newborns have been shown to prefer their mother’s voice over a stranger’s and to turn toward their mother’s used breast pad over somebody else’s. And we’ve all seen young babies fuss in a well-meaning visitor’s arms, until finally mom or dad rescues them and soothes them with a few well-timed jiggles.
If that’s not separation anxiety, then what is it?
It’s something a little different, says Wittenberg, but it still points to the normal dependence and attachment of an infant with her “important people.” Probably Caitlyn, at three months, didn’t cry when her mom left the room. She wasn’t old enough to understand that her mom was leaving or to fear her absence. However, says Wittenberg, “the baby can recognize mom’s voice and her smell, the way mom holds her—those kinds of things. So what you can have when mom’s not there is: ‘This soothing isn’t right. It doesn’t feel like it usually does when somebody who knows me really well does it. So I’m still upset.’ It’s more that.”
So even for the youngest baby, sometimes only mom will do. And while healthy babies are resilient enough to adapt to other caregivers and cope with mom’s absence, it’s important to respect their upset feelings and do what we can to help them with necessary separations. Hannah, for example, is careful to leave Caitlyn only with people who know her well and has discovered that now, at seven months, she gets a lot of comfort from her older sister being there with her.
Wittenberg’s final message: Respond to your child’s crying and distress. “There was an old theory that if you always picked up a child who was crying, then the child would learn to cry in order to get picked up, and the child would eventually cry more. We have found that exactly the opposite occurs: Children who are repeatedly, regularly and consistently picked up and soothed when they cry end up crying less. And the less anxiety-provoking experiences babies have, the sooner they develop a solid sense of security.”
Why They Cry
“You are the centre of her world, the mirror in which she sees herself and everything else, her manager who copes with her and helps her cope with other things. When you go away from her, you know where you are going and how soon you will return, but she does not…she only knows that you have vanished and that she feels bereft,” says Penelope Leach, author of Your Baby and Child.