Eight Tips for easing Separation Anxiety

I want you to know you’re not alone. This is definitely going on in my family at the moment with Frankie who is 2.5 years old and Harvey who is 1.

Your baby’s sense of individuality will take years to develop. At around 6-8 months your baby begins to realise that he is separate from you and can be left alone.  This is when separation anxiety kicks in, and it can last till the second year. “Oh no” you say, “I’m hearing you!”

Raising kids is a big responsibility.  In this age of social media and easy access to information about anything and everything, parents are easily 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.  A challenging part of a child’s life when they start to completely flip their lids whenever Mum or Dad are not around.

Your child’s thought process, it would appear is one of…

  • Mummy/Daddy are not in the room
  • Therefore, Mummy/Daddy are somewhere else
  • I would prefer to be with Mummy/Daddy
  • Make that happen or I will protest and cry about this

This situation often leaves us, as parents to wonder and question ourselves “Am I doing something wrong?”

After all, a well-adjusted child should probably feel reasonably safe when they’re separated from their parents for a little while, shouldn’t they? I mean, Beth from the office says her baby is perfectly content being left with her sitter, even overnight. Sally from my mum’s group, said that her child will happily play by herself for hours at a time.

Two things to keep in mind

First, never compare yourself, or your child, to other mums and bubs described in parenting groups on social media. Much like everything else on Facebook and Instagram, these experiences are almost always conveyed through the rosiest of lenses.  Really, in life we shouldn’t be comparing ourselves to anyone!

Second, separation anxiety is completely NORMAL, expected, and a sign of a healthy attachment between parent and child.

So what is it, exactly?

Separation anxiety typically starts to occur around 6-8 months of age, when your baby will realise that he’s independent of you. Sure, this is an exciting cognitive milestone, known as “object permanence” which is, “the understanding that objects continue to exist even when they cannot be observed”.

As your baby begins to grasp this concept, he knows that you, his favourite person in the whole wide world, can leave him.  He doesn’t know that you’ll always come back, so he’s likely to burst into tears when you leave, even for a minute.

It’s kind of fascinating when you think about it, but it’s also a little heartbreaking. This realisation, for a baby, is the cause for full-blown panic. The thought of a parent leaving and not returning causes anxiety in most grown-ups, you can hardly expect an infant to take it with great decorum.

That’s what happens in your little one’s brain when they suddenly start having a fit every time you leave the room. It’s normal, it’s natural, and it’s a sign that your little one is learning, and that they have a secure attachment to their parent. Awesome right?!

As many of us know, it also means that leaving them with a sitter or dropping them off at day care can be upsetting for both of you.  If you’re like me, what I really wanted to know was “Can I prevent this?”

Well, the truth is, you probably wouldn’t want to if you could. I mean, really, wouldn’t you be just a little devastated if you left your child with a stranger and they were just completely OK with it? “Bye Mum! See you at dinner!

Don’t worry about me. You guys have fun!”

I’m guessing that would actually be significantly more troubling than some tears and howling.

But we obviously want to keep things at a happy medium, and if you’re struggling with a child who’s pitching an absolute fit every time you try to run an errand or head out for date night, I’ve got some suggestions to take the edge off until this phase runs its course.

1.    Lead by Example

Your little one follows your cues, so if you’re not willing to let her out of your sight, they probably, albeit unconsciously, feel like they’re not safe if you’re not in the room. So designate a room where they can explore a little and play without your direct supervision. It’s a small adjustment, but it has a tremendous effect.

2.    Don’t Avoid It

Learning about separation and reunion is an important milestone, don’t just take the easy path and stay with your child 24/7 until they’re seven years old.  Let them know that it’s okay for them to get upset when you leave and reassure them that you’ll always come back when you do. If there are some tears, that’s alright. This is an important concept that they need to get on board with.

3.    Start Slow

Once your little one has started to demonstrate the understanding that they’ll be spending some time with someone besides a parent, make it a short outing. Don’t plan on dinner and a movie or an overnighter for the first few attempts.

4.    Start With Someone Familiar

Children typically do a little better being left with a grandparent or family friend who they’ve already spent some time with, who they’ve grown to trust a little.  Why not call in a favour and plan to spend at least an hour away from the house for the first few attempts.

5.    Stick Around for a While

After your sitter, parent, friend, or whoever is watching your little one arrives, plan to hang around for a half hour or so. Seeing that this is someone you’re familiar with will go a long way in reassuring your child that they’re “good people” and worthy of their trust.

6.    Face the Music

Many of us have, at least once, attempted to distract our child and then sneak out the door without saying goodbye. After all, it’s the goodbye that provokes the reaction, right? Even if it provokes some tears, it’s important for your child to understand that you’re going to leave and that you’ll be back when you say you will.

7.    Establish a Routine

Much like bedtime, a solid, predictable goodbye routine helps your little one recognize and accept the situation. A set number of kisses and hugs, a memorable key phrase, and a clear indication of when you’ll be back should be just the right balance of short and reassuring.

8.    Speak in Terms They’ll Understand

Instead of telling them how long you’ll be gone, tell them when you’ll be back in regards to their schedule. After nap time, before bed, after dinner, before bath time, and so on.

Nothing is going to prevent your child from getting a little bit upset when you leave, but you can definitely keep the fuss to a minimum.

These techniques are suggested for kids who are dealing with ordinary, everyday separation anxiety. There is also a condition called Separation Anxiety Disorder which is obviously more serious and warrants a visit to your pediatrician if you suspect your little one might be afflicted with it.

But for the crying and protesting when you try to leave the house for an hour or two, these tips should go a long way towards remedying the problem. Be consistent, supportive, assertive, and calm. Before long, your child will understand the concept of you leaving and coming back.