At some point during their development, all babies will experience separation anxiety. This is very common, completely normal and demonstrates that your child has a healthy and loving attachment to you. However, it can be difficult for parents to cope with a child who gets panicky and upset when they are not around. The good news is, for the vast majority of babies, separation anxiety happens in phases and will not last forever.
What is separation anxiety?
Around the age of 10 months, you may notice that your child becomes restless when he is away from you. Whenever you move away and disappear from the field of view or assign someone else to watch, even if you are in the next room, he becomes upset and starts crying. When you put him to sleep, he refuses to let you go and he may wake up during the night looking for you. This developmental stage is known as Separation Anxiety. Your child has not yet learned that parents are still there and will return, even if they are in the next room. This stage reaches its peak between 10 to 18 months, and continues to exist until 2-4 years.
Tips: How to make the separations easier
There are several strategies you can use to help your child (and yourself) in this difficult period.
- Practice separation and schedule separations after naps or feedings. Leave your child with a caregiver for brief periods and short distances at first. Babies are more susceptible to separation anxiety when they are tired or hungry.
- Gradual introduction to various persons and places: If you plan to leave your child with a relative or with an unknown person, call that person in advance at home so you can spend some time with your child and him/her in your presence. This will let your child know that it is a person that he can trust. If your child will go in kindergarten or day care for the first time, visit the place a few times in advance together.
- Be calm and consistent. Even if your baby’s distress is upsetting you, it’s not necessary to give up plans to go out or return to work. It’s part of his emotional growth to learn that others can care for him as well, and he can trust you to come back soon. Create a ‘ritual’ to say goodbye to your child, where you say a pleasant, gentle and firm goodbye. Remain calm and show confidence in your child. Reassure him that you will return. Explain when you will come to get him by using concepts he will understand (such as after a meal or after he wakes up). Once you leave, leave. Repeated trips back into the house or daycare center to calm your baby will make it harder on you, your child, and the caregiver.
- A favorite object. Help your child choose a favorite object. This item (transient item) can be a small blanket or a teddy bear. This is a healthy way to minimize separation anxiety, since the contact will reassure the child that you will come back.
Try to keep in mind the fact that this stress phase, that separation is temporary and that each child expresses differently his anxiety.
When the Separation Anxiety becomes a Disorder?
Children who develop this disorder are afraid of losing their family and they are often convinced that something bad will happen when they are away from their parents.
Other symptoms of Separation Anxiety Disorder are:
- Panic symptoms (such as nausea, vomiting or difficulty in breathing) or panic attacks before leaving a parent or before going to school.
- Repetitive nightmares in connection with the separation.
- Unexplained concern that they will be lost or that they will abduct.
If intense separation anxiety continues in elementary school and beyond, then you should talk to a specialist.