How to Handle Separation Anxiety

It's normal and healthy for your baby to cry when you leave -- but it's still undeniably painful. Here's how to deal with separation anxiety.

What It's Like

For the first eight months of his life, Brett Kreyer was a social butterfly. He enjoyed the attention of new people and smiled at any friendly face.

Then he hit the 9-month mark, and everything changed. "Suddenly, my husband and I were the only people who could touch him," recalls his mom, Diane, of Great Falls, Virginia. "If I made a move toward the door, he would start screaming. I was just racked with guilt every time I had to go somewhere without him."

Leaving your baby is never easy. Departing as he screams and desperately clings to you is enough to make the most confident parent wonder what she's doing wrong. But as it turns out, separation anxiety is a normal part of his development. "During the first six months of her life, your baby has no idea that she is independent from her parents -- or any other caregiver," says Jude Cassidy, Ph.D., a professor of psychology at the University of Maryland, in College Park. That's why most young babies will happily move from one lap to another. It simply doesn't matter who provides the food or the love, as long as it's there.

At about 6 months, however, your baby begins to distinguish one person from another and starts forming strong emotional attachments to his parents and caregivers. He's also coming to understand the concept of object permanence: When his mother leaves the room, he remembers that she left and wonders when she'll return. "When you add these two developmental advances together, you've got the perfect equation for separation anxiety," Dr. Cassidy says.

In actuality, then, his sorrow at your departure is a positive sign. "It's an indication that a child is attached to his parents," says Ross A. Thompson, Ph.D., a professor of psychology at the University of Nebraska, in Lincoln. Ultimately, this strong sense of security will help your baby learn to be an independent toddler. In the meantime, here are a few strategies to help calm his anxiety.

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