Between 4-7 months, babies start to realize that they are separate from their parents (instead of thinking they are one person). At this age, disappearing from your baby’s sight can cause distress or they may simply notice your absence. Separation anxiety is a normal part of development for little ones. But it can look different for each child, depending on their temperament and the way they feel from day to day.
Your baby might be totally unconcerned about you walking away or leaving. Or they might always keep one eye on you and need extra cuddles. Or your baby could become nervous, clingy, and cry more than usual. If your baby is feeling poorly, especially if they are sensitive, they may panic and try to hold onto you for dear life or act like the world is ending when you leave. This can be heartbreaking and stressful, especially if it happens on a regular basis. If this is the case, remind yourself that this is hard on your baby, too.
Until your baby can understand object permanence, which is the concept that people and things exist even when they are unseen, your baby won’t realize they will see you again when you leave. They must also learn to trust you so they can feel safe and reassured that you will return. This can be an ongoing process.
Looking at separation anxiety from your baby’s perspective could be eye-opening and beneficial. Assuming that separation is scary for them can transform feelings of frustration and stress into patience and compassion. It may bring you comfort to know that these periods are temporary. But they can sometimes drag on for months and happen repeatedly. They can occur even when little ones have learned that objects and people are permanent and when they’ve learned to trust their parents.
Why Do Babies Go Through Separation Anxiety?
When little ones go through developmental periods like teething, mental leaps, and growth spurts, they experience physical and mental changes that make them feel wired, overstimulated, or uncomfortable, and they may even experience pain. Babies are unable to comfort themselves until they are about 4 or 5 years old, so they need their caregivers or parents to help them feel better. During these times, the need for comfort and physical closeness heightens and intensifies significantly. They need lots of extra support.
Babies thrive on companionship and physical contact. When they don’t feel well, they instinctively know that connecting with their parents and being held by them makes everything better. So do whatever you can to be in tune with your little one so you know when they need comfort, even when you are exhausted. For many babies, independent sleep may go out the window. But take heart, separation anxiety will come to an end and your baby will always have time to learn to sleep better. Everything you do to support your baby will also support optimal development, mental health, and solid attachments.
Remember, humans aren’t meant to be alone. We are healthiest when we spend meaningful time with other people. Babies need these connections even more than we do. They also don’t understand why we spend time apart from each other.
What can you do to improve separation anxiety?
- Teach your baby to trust you by being responsive
- Strive to read your child’s verbal and non-verbal cues and meet their needs
- Teach object permanence on an ongoing basis
- Play Peek-a-Boo around doorways and behind furniture
- Play Hide-n-Seek by hiding objects under a kitchen towel
- Don’t sneak off when you leave
- Use the words “goodbye” and “hello” to teach them that you’ll be back
- Tell your baby you miss them when you are apart and let them know how special they are to you, even though they seem too young to understand.
- When you leave or put them to bed, tell them how much you love being with them, talk about the next time you’ll be together. Give them something to look forward to.
- Give them lots of extra hugs and cuddles
How long should I focus on these things?
You may have long breaks from separation anxiety, or you may have short breaks. Your baby might be extremely dependent and attached to you because of their temperament. It’s hard to know what to expect, so make these efforts part of your everyday life for the long run. This will make your life a little easier and bring peace and security to your child when they need it most.
During developmental periods, even children who have learned object permanence with a sense of security can forget the peace that they previously felt when they were alone. It may feel confusing and concerning to you. Your little one may suddenly act younger. You might sense that they feel unreasonably afraid and distressed. But, don’t worry. Separation anxiety stages are normal for children, too. Be supportive, show compassion, and continue focusing on these steps to rebuild their sense of security and peace. It will be 100% worth the effort!
A mother of a two-year-old girl shared this with me: “I did all of these things. And now looking back, I can say that all of our efforts helped get us to where we are today. She allows me to do things and gives me space. This is a recent change, within the past 4 months. Her ability to allow me to go off even to do the laundry is strengthened, and she appreciates when we can be together all the more. I tell her how much I love her, how much I miss her when we’re apart, even if we’re apart in the sense that I can’t play with her if she sees me doing activities around the house. When we come back together, it’s a sweet reunion and she looks forward to working together with me on something. I don’t even have to sneak off to the doctor or the store. She lets me go happily now. I give her a kiss, tell her I love her and I’ll be home soon. She says, “Love you momma” and keeps playing.”
Meredith Brough is a sleep coach and mentor who believes that women deserve the opportunity to redefine themselves in their roles as mothers and feel reassured that they are doing their best, while staying connected to their old selves.
By establishing healthy & peaceful sleep patterns using the Supported Sleep System, mothers can optimize their children’s sleep and their own sleep, which stabilizes the home. Through shifting mindset, fine-tuning the gifts of intuition and instinct, and becoming more aware of their children’s needs, mothers can find the space to elevate themselves, gain confidence, and feel at peace.
Meredith supports parents all over the world using Zoom video and digital resources. She also teaches sleep consultants and professionals, and runs an agency. If you are ready to understand your baby and learn what they need to sleep well, visit Meredith’s website to take the “Baby Temperament Test.” Also look for a collection of free resources, including “The Sweet Slumber Podcast.”