Separation anxiety in babies or toddlers usually shows signs at around 6 months of age and peaks at 9 months. It usually shows up as a child screaming and crying inconsolably when their parent tries to separate from them, even for the briefest moment.
Separation anxiety might coincide with children taking steps towards independence (like learning to walk) or when a child faces new transitions or situations (like a new sibling or going to school). This development is totally understandable when viewed from their eyes. But are we as parents powerless to help them through it? I would argue no.
Teaching our children to be separate is important and should be prioritized. Separateness is a healthy part of any intimate relationship. Not everyone wants constant togetherness and constant contact. In any respectful relationship, there is separateness and this holds true even for babies and toddlers.
I might even go so far as to argue that separation is needed because it teaches us to appreciate each other better. Think about the reuniting that takes place after your child’s had a full night's sleep in their own cot. That 12 hours of both being alone makes reuniting that much sweeter.
Here at Lullabub Sleepers, we have 8 strategies you might want to explore to help your child overcome his or her separation anxiety:
Encourage autonomy. Children are dependent, not helpless. So wherever possible, allow your baby to spend baby-directed time on his own. Make sure this is done safely, for instance by creating a space where he can play and explore without your immediate presence. Then over time, you can evolve these sessions into longer periods of baby ‘me-time’.
Remember not to hover. Child-parent separation cannot happen if indirectly you are encouraging your child to be clingy by always following him around. If your baby walks away from you whilst on the playmat, stay put and observe from afar. Only intervene when absolutely necessary.
Don’t shush your child. When your child expresses his sadness and anxiety over separating, allow him to do so. Accept his feelings, even validate them. “Separating is hard, I hear you”. Don’t make judgmental comments like “but I’m only going for 2mins”. Allow your child to grieve the loss, and just calmly assure him that you will return- “I’ll be back soon”.
Don’t sneak off. I recommend telling your child you will be leaving and where you will be going before you make your move. Sneaking off tends to create mistrust and anxiety- the antithesis to graceful separation.
Since children struggle to grapple with the concept of time, tell them when you'll be back according to their timetable (e.g. I will be back after you’ve had your dinner but before bedtime stories).
Separate confidently. Be confident that your child will be able to handle this change. Children are hypersensitive to our feelings so if you show anxiety subconsciously, your child will be able to tell and mirror that back to you. Don’t walk to the door to leave, only to re-enter the room on hearing his cries.
Start incrementally. Start with a short trip like going to the toilet for a few minutes. Then build this up by leaving for an hour’s drive, leaving your child with a trusted family member. Once your baby is comfortable with that, stretch the hours a little longer.
Practice, practice, practice. Accept the fact that your child will cry when he hears you say goodbye. This will happen over and over again. But it is still important for him to come to terms with that part of life that his parents will have to leave for short periods of time. Most importantly, however, mom and dad return when they say they will.
Establish a routine. Like a bedtime routine, a goodbye ritual helps children adjust. Leaving with a set number of smooches and hugs, a clever remark, and a clear indicator of when you'll return is exactly right.
Inevitably, separation anxiety in babies will always be there. Your child will feel some sadness whenever you leave, but you may minimize the amount of fuss by taking these Eight Strategies of Overcoming Separation Anxiety by Lullabub Sleepers.