Does your little one often gets clingy and cry if you or other carers leave them, even for a short time? If so, your baby might be beginning to experience separation anxiety.
It can be frustrating for parents, especially if you want to shower or go to the toilet! But it's a healthy sign! As it is an entirely normal part of your baby's development.
So, what is separation anxiety?
Separation anxiety is when your little one doesn't want you to leave them in an unfamiliar situation, whether with grandparents, relatives, or childcare providers.
This is totally normal and can occur during the first years of your little one's life. Remember, all children are unique, and separation anxiety might occur at different times for your little one. If your little one is not showing signs of this, it doesn't mean something is "wrong" - just like adults have different personalities, so will your baby!
Your baby might begin experiencing separation anxiety at around six months, lasting until your child is three years old. However, it most frequently develops between 8 and 12 months and peaks between 12 and 24 months. Separation anxiety in toddlers can also occur, but this may happen less frequently.
Feeling guilty or upset at the sight of your little one crying or getting worried and sad whenever you leave is normal; it is not only a phase that will pass; it's also a sign that your little one is developing and growing up healthy!
These are typical signs of separation anxiety in babies. If you recognise some of the following, your instincts may be correct!
Your baby is clingy and always wants to be in your arms or near you, not even with other caregivers.
Your baby protests and gets upset if you get out of sight, for instance, when you leave the room.
When your baby is upset because of not being close to you, they calm down quickly when reuniting with you.
Your baby is uncomfortable around strangers or family members that they have not seen in a while.
Your baby cries and has tantrums when you leave them with grandparents, at a nursery, a childminder, or a babysitter.
What causes separation anxiety?
Your little one is developing their understanding of the world and finding their place within it.
Separation anxiety is not a negative; it is a sign that your baby is developing a bond with you and gets upset and worried that you might no longer exist when you leave their sight!
Separation anxiety in toddlers can also happen, but over time, your little one will gradually grow out of it as they learn about object permanence and develop the understanding that even when you've disappeared from view, you still exist and will eventually come back.
Tips to support your little one with separation anxiety
Play games to support the development of object permanence
Peekaboo is a great game for helping your baby develop this vital concept. It is fun and easy to play! Start using a cloth to hide your face, then suddenly remove it to come back!
You may want to experiment by quickly leaving the room while singing or talking so you're out of sight, but they can still hear you.
As your baby becomes more confident, try to leave the room without making a sound. Then, give your baby some time to respond and come back.
You may also want to try playing hide and seek with a toy to help your baby understand similar concepts.
Practise separating from your little one
Begin practising short separations from your baby. Gradually, they'll learn that if you leave them, they'll be fine, and you will return.
Leave them with someone they know well so they feel comfortable and safe.
Gradually extend separations a little bit longer. Your little one's confidence will grow as time passes.
Begin by leaving them for short periods in less familiar places or unfamiliar people, such as a nursery or babysitter.
Arrange a play date with the person looking after your baby to help them get to know them first and feel comfortable and safe.
Goodbyes are important
Your little one needs to learn the simple pattern of saying goodbye, leaving, and returning later. For this to happen, you must avoid the goodbyes, no matter how painful they may seem:
Explain to your little one what will happen; you have to go but will be back later. Then say goodbye while smiling and wave as you leave. You might feel worried or anxious, but don't show it. Children tend to pick up on our emotional state and mirror our behaviour, so if your baby picks up on it, they might also become worried or anxious.
Your baby must see you leave. Don't sneak out thinking it will be easier on your little one and you! It is most likely that this might make your baby's separation anxiety stronger. In addition, your baby may feel stressed because they may never know if you suddenly decide to be gone.
Don't extend your goodbyes; the longer you stay, the more you invite your baby to "battle" you into staying, making it painful for both of you!
If your baby is upset or crying, explain what is to happen; what a wonderful time they will have; and also share with them what you will do together when you come back, so they have something to look forward to! Then kiss and leave with a reassuring smile.
Leave at a good moment
Try to leave them at a good time, for example, after a nap or meal when they are less tired or restless. Leave when your little one is happily playing and feels comfortable with what they are doing.
Introduce a soothing object or toy to support transitions and separations
They are an excellent source of comfort and security for some children when their primary carer is gone.
Soothing soft, and cuddly objects can be anything from pillows to teddy bears to small blankets, but if your little one falls in love with a spoon because it fits nicely into their hand, then wonderful!
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