8 Tips for Easing Separation Anxiety
Raising kids is a high-stakes responsibility, and in this age of social media and easy access to information about anything and everything, it is easy for parents to become overwhelmed with feelings of guilt and inadequacy. As a sleep consultant, I see this all the time from parents whose babies aren’t sleeping well.
One of the other major contributors to the, “I’m doing something wrong” sensation is separation anxiety; that oh-so-challenging part of your child’s life when they start to completely freak out whenever you’re not around.
Although separation anxiety can look like an unpleasant or “bad” thing, as a child development specialist, I actually love when parents tell me their little one’s are experiencing this phase. I promise, I’m not evil or sadistic…let me explain!
Separation Anxiety in Children
Between seven and ten months, babies’ brains experience a huge cognitive stride and they develop something called object permanence. Basically, object permanence is the notion that even though something is not physically present, it still exists. Prior to this stage, babies could only conceptualize what was physically in front of them. Cover a four-month-old’s favorite toy with a blanket, and they might look at you briefly but quickly move on to something else. Cover a nine-month-old’s favorite toy with a blanket and they will likely try to pick up that blanket to retrieve their toy. How cool is this!?
I also get nerdy and excited when hearing about the development of separation anxiety because it is a sign of a healthy attachment relationship between parent and child. This is the time when babies start to think, “Ok, that babysitter can feed me, bathe me, and put me to bed, but I’d much prefer my mom so I’m going to go ahead and cry to let everyone know.”
As your baby begins to grasp this concept, they realize that if you, their favorite person in the whole world, are not there, you’re elsewhere. And what if you don’t come back? Even though I see separation anxiety as a fascinating and positive development, it’s also a little heartbreaking. This realization for baby is cause for full-blown panic; I mean, the thought of a loved-one leaving and not returning is anxiety provoking for most of the adults I know, so it is understandable that a baby has a strong reaction when navigating this stage.
As normal and as natural as this developmental phase is, I understand that it’s not always pleasant to deal with. Leaving your child with a babysitter, dropping them at daycare, or simply trying to use the bathroom can turn into an absolute horror show! But more than wanting to know “What is causing this?” I’m sure you’re asking yourself, “How do I prevent it?”
We want to make sure that we are helping our little ones cope with their anxieties in a healthy way since we can’t always be by their side. If you’re struggling with a child who is pitching a fit every time you try to run an errand or head out for a date night, I’ve got some suggestions to take the edge off until this phase runs its course.
I should add here that these techniques are suggested for kids who are dealing with ordinary, everyday separation anxiety. There is also a clinical condition called Separation Anxiety Disorder which is obviously more serious and warrants a trip to your pediatrician if you suspect your little one might be outside the realm of normal anxieties.
1. Lead By Example
Your little one follows your cues so if you’re not willing to let her out of your sight, chances are they will begin to feel – albeit unconsciously – as though they are not safe if you leave the room. Designate a safe space in your home where your child can play and explore a bit without your direct supervision.
One thing that can help – even before your child goes through this stage – is practicing planned separation. This could mean playing peek-a-boo with a large blanket so your younger baby can practice watching you disappear and reappear again, or, while your little one is happily playing, walking out of the room saying, “Mommy will be right back” and then returning a few seconds later. These activities can help your child become accustomed to the idea of leaving and returning…and that when you “disappear,” it won’t be for good! Mommy may leave, but she always comes back! It’s a small adjustment, but it can have a tremendous impact.
2. Don’t Avoid It
Learning about separation and reunion is an important milestone, so don’t just take the path of least resistance and stay with your child 24/7 until they’re nine (or nineteen) years old. (It happens. Believe me!) Validate your child’s sad feelings when you have to leave and reassure them that you’ll always come back. If there are some tears, that’s alright. Separation and reunion are important concepts that your child needs to learn.
3. Start Slow
When you begin practicing planned separations for longer periods beyond playing peekaboo or using the bathroom, make it short. When leaving your child with a babysitter or other family member, don’t plan on dinner and a movie or an overnight for your first attempt. Run to Target or grab some fro-yo and build up from there.
4. Start With A Familiar Face
Kids usually do a bit better when they’re left with a grandparent or family friend who they’ve already spent some time with and who’ve they’ve grown to trust a little. If your little one is newly resistant to your absence, leave dad or grandma at home while you’re out and about.
Of course, living far away from family or rocking the single-parent life makes this not always possible. Plus, you and your partner certainly need a date night every now and then. In this case, I would invite any new babysitter over prior to your outing to get your little one familiar with their new friend.
5. Stick Around for a While
In addition to a previously planned meet-and-greet, invite your child’s caregiver over with sometime to spare before you actually have to walk out the door. After your sitter, parent, or friend arrives, plan to hang around for twenty minutes or so. Seeing that this is someone you’re familiar with and trust can go a long way in reassuring your child that they’re “good people” and worthy of their trust.
6. Use Age-Appropriate Language
Instead of telling your child how long you’ll be gone, tell them when you’ll be back as it relates to their schedule. “Mommy will be back after you wake up from your nap.” Or, “Mommy and Daddy will be back after dinner when it’s time for bath.” This will help give them a tangible timeframe to hold on to as toddlers aren’t usually able to grasp the concept of time.
7. Face The Music
Many of us have, at least once, attempted to distract our babies or toddlers and then sneak out the door without saying goodbye in an attempt to avoid a meltdown. Please, please, please, don’t think you can ease crying or protesting if you sneak away. Always prepare your child for your departure (whether that’s you leaving for work, going out for the evening, or just saying goodnight at bedtime). You don’t want your child to be playing nicely and then look up and realize that you have disappeared. Imagine what might go through their mind: “Where have you gone?” Will you come back? Next time, I’m not going to let go of your leg because the moment I went off on my own, I lost you.”
As your child gets older, you can create a nice goodbye routine (see #8) with special hugs, high-fives, and key phrases. Even if it provokes some tears, it’s important for your child to understand that you are going to leave sometimes but you will always come back when you say you will.
8. Establish a Routine
Much like bedtime, a solid, predictable goodbye routine can help your little one recognize and accept the temporary separation. A set number of kisses and hugs, a memorable key phrase, and a clear indication of when you’ll return should be just the right balance of short but reassuring.
Bedtime routines are critically important at this time too; they have been useful since birth and they will continue to be important long after this stage fades. You do not want to start new habits that you have no intention of maintaining such as laying with your child as they fall asleep or allowing them to fall asleep in your bed before transferring them. Your child may cry harder in protest when you leave the room during this stage, but resolving the problem by skipping a nap or letting them sleep in your bed is only reinforcing an association between crying and these lovely things.
Nothing is going to prevent your child from getting a little bit upset when you leave, but some of these strategies can help keep the tears to a minimum. Remind yourself that it’s okay if your child cries. Babies cry. Children cry. Adults cry. I certainly want you to have many parenting goals but I hope that ensuring your little one never cries isn’t one of them! Crying is a part of life and is something that will happen from time to time, unpleasant as it may be. Do your best to help prepare your little one for the anxieties that separation may bring, but do not let your fear of your child’s tears keep you from going on date night or taking a weekend away. More than likely, your child will be fine in a matter of minutes.
My mom often tells a story about leaving me with a babysitter as a young child. She called the house soon after leaving to check in. When she spoke to me, I was a blubbering, emotional wreck, and begged her to come home. My mom said she hung up the phone with a knot in her stomach and considered turning the car around. She called back little bit later to speak to my babysitter and in the background could hear me laughing and playing. I was aboslutely fine! That’s just the nature of the beast. I got through it, she got through it, and you will too!
Remain consistent, supportive, assertive, and calm. Before long, your child will understand the concept of you leaving and returning again. If you feel like you’re struggling and need more support, guidance, or strategies, send us a message. We want you to feel confident and competent in your parenting, and we are here to help you manage the tough stuff!
If you’re exhausted, totally overwhelmed by your child’s sleep habits, or looking for answers to the sleep questions that keep you up at night (literally), then you’ve come to the right place. I’m Jamie, founder of Oh Baby Consulting, and my goal is to help your family get the sleep you need to not just survive, but thrive!