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In this article, we will take a more in-depth look at separation anxiety in babies and provide you with some tips to manage it to develop a firmer relationship with your beautiful kids.
Have you ever wondered why your baby cries and clings to you ceaselessly when you leave the house or drop them off at daycare? We know it can be a very frustrating experience. On the one hand, we love our babies and would prefer not to see them cry. On the other hand, we have duties outside of the home that are important to the babies and us.
The good news is that this situation is part of the normal developmental process in the child. It’s not awkward that your child never wants you out of their presence; in fact, it would be awkward if they didn’t. However,, understanding the normalcy of the situation does not make it less challenging.
What is Separation Anxiety in Babies?
Separation anxiety is a condition in children that makes them cry and cling to their primary caregiver (among other symptoms) whenever they (the primary caregiver) separate from them. Separation may last for a few minutes (outside of the nursery) or extended hours (outside of the house).
Separation anxiety in babies coincides with a stage in the child’s developmental process where they develop a sense of object permanence. Object permanence means they know that people outside of themselves exist even when they are not physically present. In other words, when you are not in the nursery with them, your baby knows that you are somewhere else. This understanding – that you are somewhere else rather than present with them – is the primary cause of separation anxiety. Your baby begins to feel less secure and vulnerable when you are not there.
When Does Separation Anxiety Occur and For How Long?
Separation anxiety begins around the age of five to seven months and the duration varies from child to child. During this period, they also begin to develop emotional connections and make distinctions between people.
Separation anxiety also manifests around the age of nine to ten months. During this time, they begin to gain a better sense of daily routines and understand social scenarios.
It can also develop around the age of twelve to fifteen months, when the child begins to empathize with you but cannot express their feelings (at your intended absence) and therefore resort to crying.
This condition occurs for days and weeks during each of these phases. However, some babies might not experience all the stages.
Separation Anxiety Disorder
Separation anxiety disorder is the extreme stage of separation anxiety in babies. Here, the separation anxiety can extend to primary school years. At this stage, the anxiety begins to interfere with normal life activities like school or playtime with other kids. The child may get sick due to the separation or claim to be sick to avoid the separation in the first place. Rather than lasting for days and weeks, it lasts for months.
While separation anxiety is normal in all babies, separation anxiety disorder occurs in few.
So, whenever your lovely baby demonstrates clinginess, do not think that they are weird or strange. They are going through a standard process. We will soon look at some strategies you can put in place to help your adorable child.
If their struggle is a separation anxiety disorder, do not despair! There are solutions to that as well.
Cheer up; we’re here to help.
Before we look at the strategies you can implement to help your baby, let us take a brief pause to look at the causes and symptoms.
Causes of Separation Anxiety in Babies
You may wonder why we’re considering separation anxiety causes when we already said that this is a normal process. However, while separation anxiety is normal in kids, certain situations can exacerbate it. Understanding these situations will help you better prepare to help your child.
So, what are these situations?
- New environments: Even adults react to new environments. We are less confident and more insecure when we move to an entirely new environment. Well, it’s the same for our babies. They react when you change their house, school, daycare, or caregiver (if you hired someone to help). They feel less secure and more anxious.
- Stressful situations: Don’t we also freak out in the face of stress? Don’t we become more anxious? Our babies do as well. If a loved one or a favorite pet dies, discord arises among parents, there is a divorce, or the stress of switching schools hits them, they can develop more separation anxiety.
- Parents’ overprotectiveness: We understand you want to be there for your kids, supporting them as much as possible. We love them too much not to care or protect. We want to shield them from the realities of the world. However, we tend to overdo this, leading to insecure attachments – which intensifies the separation anxiety in babies.
- Temperament: Separation anxiety can last longer in children that are shy or timid.
- Hunger, sickness, tiredness: Leaving their side when they are hungry or sick will add to their feeling and expression of separation anxiety.
How then do you know when a child has separation anxiety?
Symptoms of Separation Anxiety in Babies
The symptoms of separation anxiety include the following (in different proportions between babies):
- Crying: Crying when you leave their side for a short period or leave the house for a more extended period is the most common symptom of separation anxiety.
- Clinginess: The baby will keep holding on to you, unwilling to let you go. It is their way of saying, “Stay with me, Momma.”
- “Don’t Put Me Down Momma:” This is another way babies express separation anxiety. They will resist when you want to put them down on the bed or give them to another person. “I just want my Momma.”
- Waking up in the night: If your child wakes up regularly in the night when you leave their bedside, this is a symptom of separation anxiety.
- Shyness around familiar people: They might suddenly begin to feel shy around people that come around the house frequently. Even though your baby knows them, they will still want their Momma.
- Stranger Anxiety: Your baby might begin to feel insecure around strangers. They may resort to crying when a stranger holds them.
Symptoms of Separation Anxiety Disorder
While these symptoms mentioned above are common for kids with separation anxiety, those with separation anxiety disorders display one or more of the following symptoms:
- Fear of school: Kids with separation anxiety disorders do not want to go to school. Even at this age, they cannot afford to stay away from you that long.
- Fear of sleeping: Kids may also be afraid of sleeping, to the point that it becomes insomnia.
- Fear that something bad will happen: They are always worried about the permanence of the separation; anxious that something will go wrong and you will be ‘really’ gone.
- Isolation from friends: Kids with separation anxiety disorder do not want to play with their friends, they just want to be with their Momma.
Enough said about causes and symptoms. Now is the time to consider the way forward. How can you help your child at this crucial developmental stage in life?
Strategies for Managing Separation Anxiety in Babies
There are many strategies you can use to manage separation anxiety in babies. Here, we will focus on the few most effective ones.
Consider some goodbye rituals.
Babies can also identify routines and patterns. By implementing a particular ritual when you are about to leave, you create a sense of expectation which reduces their fear and anxiety about the separation.
The routine may be a simple wave, kiss, hug, or some words you say when you are about to leave. Implementing this ritual with consistency will help your child adjust and cope better with the separation.
In addition to goodbye rituals, dropping a goodbye gear to play with can also ease the separation. Some of the items we have found helpful include blanket, stuffed animal, or a photo album. Other moms also find playing a record of you narrating a story or saying those magical words – I love you – to be very helpful.
Giver them attention before making the exit
This is to say, do not sneak out (yeah, we know that is easy to do). Let me repeat this for emphasis: Never Sneak Out. You may think seeing you leave is the cause of the anxiety (and if they do not see you leave, they will be fine). However, sneaking out can worsen the anxiety.
Play with them, cuddle them, and spend time with them before exiting. Do not forget our nice little routine after giving them attention.
Make the separation easier
You can make the separation easier by ensuring your baby is well-fed, healthy, and bright before you leave. Never leave them hungry, tired, or sick – it will worsen the situation. On the contrary, by ensuring they have what they need, you reduce their anxiety.
Many mothers have found games like Peekaboo and Hide the Ball effective. Don’t try anything complex. The purpose of the game is to help your baby learn that when things seem like they’re gone, they do come back.
Don’t add to the problem.
Your baby will take cues from your emotional reaction to the situation. If you wear that lonely, anxious, tearful, frustrating, and sad look, they will notice. Your emotional response can go a long way in aggravating or subsiding the anxiety. Do you want your baby to be calm? Be the adult and model calmness.
Promise and fulfill
Promising your child that you will be back at a particular time can be helpful. When you do this, convey the time in a way they can understand. ‘I will be back after lunch’ is better than ‘I will be back by 3 pm.’ ‘Lunch’ adds a greater sense of expectation that 3 pm does not.
Here’s the catch: keep your promise. Failed promises add to the disappointment. Disappointment does not help with the separation anxiety; it aids it. Make promises when you can and stick to them.
Refusing to leave is another symptom of overprotectiveness. It might be tempting to return when your child begins to cry and pick them up for a cuddle. However, this is not helpful. When it’s time to leave, just do it. That way, you will help get past this stage earlier rather than later.
Just like goodbye rituals, reunion routines can be helpful. It can be a hug, a kiss, or picking up their toys to join in on the fun.
In the case of separation anxiety disorder, some of these additional tips can be very helpful.
If you have a child that shows symptoms of separation anxiety disorder, the first step is to understand and empathize with their feelings. Know what they experience and how they experience it. Listen to them and respect their feelings. Do not avoid the conversation.
One way to help your baby overcome separation anxiety disorder is to help them connect with friends and participate in activities. The more you can help them get along with friends, the better.
If the situation persists, seek professional help. You can seek some help from their teacher, a GP or pediatrician, the local health center, or a specialist in anxiety and mental health. It might require parent-child interaction therapy or CBT (cognitive behavior therapy).
When you child is making progress, give them a pat (or something to show you recognize and appreciate their progress). This is known as positive reinforcement. The more you give them positive feedback with their development, the greater the encouragement to do better.
While separation anxiety is a normal part of the child’s growth, it is not without its challenges. By understanding the causes and symptoms, as well as practicing the strategies above, you will be in a better position to help your kid. If the situation develops into separation anxiety disorder, it is not a cause for fretting. Instead, seek to implement these tips and patiently help your adorable child overcome the challenge.