Separation anxiety occurs at various stages in your baby’s development and is an important sign that your baby is beginning to understand that you are separate from them and can leave them alone. The only thing they can do is protest.
The common signs of separation anxiety – such as clinginess, crying when you leave a room, crying at strangers – begin at around six months. It can then arise again in toddlerhood and during any uncertain, new routines, such as starting pre-school.
What can I do to reassure my baby?
The first thing to do is to try to understand how anxious they must feel. You are their secure base in the world; when they first realise that you can leave them they don’t immediately also understand that you will come back too. To help your baby through this important developmental stage there are several things you can do to help reassure them.
- Be calm and consistent in the way you leave. Give lots of eye contact, smiles and reassurance and then leave quickly
- Play games that help your baby to practise separating and reuniting with you. For example, going to another room to get something and letting your baby and your partner come and ‘find you’, making it fun and safe, playing peek-a-boo, etc. These are all times when your baby is storing memories that you go and come back, go and come back. Babies love repetition in games like peek-a-boo
- Use lots of ‘bye-byes’ and ‘hellos’ so your baby learns to understand the safe rituals of separation and reunion – but keep them very short at first as this will reassure your baby and build the memories and experiences that you consistently come back
- If you are returning to work, do prepare your baby over a long period of time, either to get used to being with another family member at home or to become familiar with their new childminder, nursery or crèche and form a good relationship with their key worker (as this carer will be your baby’s secure base in your absence)
- Have a practice week, or settling-in week at the nursery or crèche with very short visits, with you, then without you (while you have a cup of tea in a next door room) then a very short session, etc. – build it up slowly
- Give your baby a breastfeed or bottle before you go so your baby is not hungry and has just had a nice time with you
- Encourage your baby to have props that help them to feel secure, such as a teddy or a blanket (these are called ‘transitional objects’)
- Get angry with your baby
- See separation anxiety as a failure of you or your baby
- Go straight into full days of childcare away from you with complete strangers in an unfamiliar environment
- Arrange goodbyes when your baby is tired or hungry
- Sneak off – this will just confirm your baby’s fears and make them more vigilant, clingy and anxious about your whereabouts
- Leave your baby with lots of different people – they needs a primary caregiver, either a key worker or family member. This is a very important emotional need in all babies
- Tell lies and say you are, for example, going to have a shower – as when you don’t come back they will become anxious and confused