Bye-Bye Blues: How to Deal with Separation Anxiety

Try these reassuring exit strategies to ease the pain of separation anxiety.
A baby boy reaching out for a window

There comes a time in every parent's life when she becomes fluent in cling-on. All babies experience some degree of separation anxiety, which generally peaks between 9 and 12 months. "Your baby has become more aware of the world around her and the people she's attached to -- especially her mommy and daddy," says Laura Jana, M.D., a pediatrician in Omaha and coauthor of Heading Home With Your Newborn. If your baby starts crying as soon as you leave her side, it might feel impossible to get anything done. To help, we tapped experts for advice on getting through this phase.

 

Understand His Tears

Your baby is now beginning to grasp the concept of object permanence -- the idea that people and things exist even when they're not in sight. (Younger babies don't get this; a 6-month-old won't lift a blanket to look for a toy you've hidden under it.) Now that your child knows you're somewhere -- but not with him -- he'll cry to keep you from leaving. While this is an important developmental step, he may become clingy at day-care drop-off, even if he's been going there for months.

 

Keep Goodbyes Brief

To make parting easier on you both, give her a kiss and leave definitively, says Lisa M. Asta, M.D., clinical professor of pediatrics at the University of California, San Francisco. Try to keep your own emotions in check too. If your baby senses that you're upset, she'll think something's wrong. Rest assured that she will inevitably stop crying as soon as you're out of sight and no longer there to win over with tears. However, that doesn't mean you should sneak out when she's not looking. Letting her know when you're leaving -- even if you're just briefly going into the next room -- prevents her from worrying that you'll disappear at any moment. Say, "I'm going to the bedroom to get a load of wash and I'll be right back." Even though she won't understand your exact words (and may protest all the same), she'll catch on eventually. Always remember to say "hi" when you return, to reassure her that you did exactly as you said you would. You can also give her a comfort object, like a favorite blanket or toy, as part of your goodbye ritual so she has something familiar to hold on to.

Show Him He's Safe

In addition to separation anxiety, your child may experience stranger anxiety when he's with someone new. It's natural for friends and family to want to scoop him up and make him the center of attention, but this can be overwhelming for him, says Dr. Asta.

To give your baby adequate time to get comfortable -- especially if you're introducing him to a new caregiver or sitter -- explain that your baby takes a while to warm up and arrange a meet-and-greet. Begin by chatting with your visitor while you hold your baby on the other side of your body. He'll learn from your voice and happy demeanor that this new person is okay. If he begins to smile and interact, that's a good sign, but be patient if the process takes time. Your baby is learning the important life skill of separating from the one he loves -- and the best way you can lead him is by example.

Development Milestones: Age 9 Months
Development Milestones: Age 9 Months

Originally published in the January 2014 issue of Parents magazine.

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