There is nothing quite like experiencing milestones with your baby and seeing them do something for the very first time. Getting those first smiles and giggles out of them practically makes your heart burst. It's those connections with your little one that make all the hard parts of parenting a baby absolutely worth it. Your child is building a strong connection to you and before you know it, they want you by their side at all times. Laughs may turn into fits of tears if you walk away. Your baby has hit yet another milestone - separation anxiety.
Though your baby's separation anxiety can be difficult from a parenting perspective, it's actually a very normal part of your baby's growing up. But that doesn't mean there aren't ways to help your baby get through it and that's what we'll get to in this article.
What is separation anxiety?
Most babies will go through a period of separation anxiety, or the fear of being away from either one parent or both. Babies usually have a very strong connection to their mothers, so this is often where separation anxiety is most noticeable. Babies who have a strong connection with both parents will be happy if either is present (but not when they are both gone.)
You'll also notice separation anxiety when you leave your baby in the hands of someone they are less familiar with - even including close family members such as their grandparents.
The anxiety your baby feels when they are away from you is related to some Piaget referred to as "object permanence". Essentially, your baby is just now realizing that objects still exist even when they can't see them. Previously, the developmental understanding left them thinking you were gone forever and even though that sounds upsetting in itself, it's not until the age where your baby is able to constantly wonder and worry when and if you're coming back that they become extra emotional.
You probably have questions about your baby's separation anxiety - when to expect it if you haven't hit this stage yet, how long it lasts, as well as solutions to help your baby through it without going absolutely nuts yourself.
We're here to help your family through it.
Separation Anxiety: Baby Age and How Long it Lasts
Have you noticed your baby suddenly becoming overly clingy when they previously happily cooed and wiggled even if you weren't nearby? If so, it's a good chance they've hit the age where they are developing object permanence. Though we usually think of milestones as happy times (rolling over, sitting up, etc.) there are other milestones such as this one that aren't always easy for your baby to go through.
Some parents will start to notice the signs of separation anxiety between 4 and 8 months, but it becomes more noticeable between 8 - 10 months and will eventually peak around 18 months.
In our article on the 4-month sleep regression, certified sleep consultant, Sarah Mitchell, discussed how the onset of object permanence at that age contributes to your baby's inability to fall asleep on their own. They miss you!! But at the same time, they don't have any concept of time and don't know if or when you'll come back to be with them. Put yourself in their (baby) booties and you can see why this would put them over the edge.
But this is just the beginning. Separation anxiety isn't a one and done kind of thing - instead, it often becomes more pronounced as your child gains more understanding of your absence. This is also because their connection to you only grows as they get older. According to Stanford Children's Health, it will ease up between the ages of 2 and 3.
We know that sounds like a long time, and of course, you can't just have your baby hanging on you 24/7. Let's get into the signs of what separation anxiety looks like and then we'll talk about the best ways to ease your child's fears when you can't be together.
Signs Your Baby is Experiencing Separation Anxiety
Babies experience a wide range of emotions. They can go from happy and smiling one minute to fussy and screaming the next if they don't get their needs met. So it might seem like it could be hard to determine if separation anxiety is what your child is experiencing, but it's usually pretty clear if you know the signs to look for.
A baby who's developing an understanding of object permanence and going through a period of separation anxiety will:
- want to be held constantly
- refuse to be held by anyone else - will immediately cry or reach back for you
- cry the minute you walk away or leave the room
- not able to fall asleep independently
- frequently waking in the night and won't calm until you come in
- cry and scream when you leave them with a sitter or drop them off at daycare
While on one hand it feels amazing to be your baby's number one, it can also be exhausting and heart-wrenching when your baby becomes overwhelmed by your absence. Not only is it unhealthy for you to never have time apart from your little one, but it's also not realistic with the demands of work and life.
Though you can't make this developmental stage just disappear, there is a lot you can do to comfort and reassure your baby to help them understand that your absence is temporary.
Tips to Help Your Baby With Their Separation Anxiety
When your baby is tiny, you spend almost every waking minute with them (and probably lots of sleeping ones, too.) Your love for each other grows exponentially, and this means that your little one wants nothing more than to be by your side. It's wonderful, isn't it? But it's also good to give your little one opportunities to gain independence and to be with others besides just you (and their other parent).
If you get your baby used to other people being around and holding them at a young age, separation anxiety will likely be less pronounced as time goes on. At the same time, some of it is just your baby's personality emerging and as we know - all babies are different!
Though not every single one of these will work for every baby, using a combination of these tips will help ease your little one's fear so you can rest assured that they are calm and happy even when you can't be with them.
Let's get you and your little through the separation anxiety phase with these tips!
- Be purposeful in creating time to be apart - This can be as simple as handing off your little guy or gal to your partner for 30 minutes while you work out or take a bath, or it might mean leaving your baby with their grandparents for a date night out. When you try this initially they may cry for your the whole time, but they will be ok! And your return will help them realize that you will come back, and the next time will likely go much more smoothly.
- Play games that prepare your baby for separations - simple games like Peek-a-boo or walking into another room and coming back will help teach your child through something fun and simple that even though you leave them, you always come back.
- Get your child used to daycare ahead of time - If you'll be enrolling your baby in new childcare, give them time to get used to it. You can do this for an hour at a time initially and gradually increase the time you are away from them.
- Give them their security items - Though it will never replace you, babies often have a special blanket or stuffy that will calm them when they are sad and anxious. Make sure they have it when you have to be apart.
- Don't linger - It can be hard to detach yourself from your crying baby. But in this situation, one more hug isn't going to be what calms them down...it will probably just make it worse. Make your good-byes loving but succinct.
- Always say good-bye - On the other hand, don't sneak out hoping your baby won't notice, either. This is only going to induce more anxiety for them and take away their trust in you.
- Tell them you'll be back - Whether or not your child understands what you're saying (they know more than you think they probably do), be clear that you'll be back. They will catch on to the consistency of this message.
- Utilize sleep training techniques - Sleep training is the best way to help your little one learn to sleep independently even when they're missing you. In our article, "A Helpful Guide for Sleep Training Your Baby," we discuss three different low-stress methods. We also discuss how using calming techniques such as white noise and the Dreamland Baby weighted wearable blanket will help relax your baby.
Separation anxiety isn't going to be eliminated in a day. Instead, you will start to see your little one become progressively more comfortable when they have to be away from you. It's also important to be prepared for setbacks from time to time; we know that babies aren't always predictable and this is no different.
We know this is hard on you too. It doesn't feel good to walk away from your crying baby. But usually, those tears only last a few minutes before your little one is happily playing until you return.