When her son Zachary hit the 7-month mark, "separation anxiety" became a daily part of Debbie Kaplan's lexicon. The Foster City, California, mom suddenly had a hard time going to temple or exercising, even though her synagogue and gym both offered childcare.
"As soon as Zachary realized I was going to leave, he would get scared and cling to me," she says. "Putting him down was torture, because he would start crying and ignore everything and everyone else in the room. And distraction didn't work," she says.
Such scenes are harrowing for you, but according to experts, separation anxiety is a sign of a healthy relationship between parent and child. Simply put, a child who is securely attached to her parents misses them when they go away. That's comforting to hear, but what should you do when the wailing starts? Read on.
Why the Fuss?
Blame it on intellectual development. Before the eighth month, it's almost as if your child has no short-term memory. "If you take a toy away, it no longer exists to the child; or if Mommy or Daddy leaves, she or he is forgotten," explains pediatrician Ari Brown, MD, coauthor of Baby 411: Clear Answers and Smart Advice for Your Baby's First Year (Windsor Peak Press). That's why a 4-month-old has little trouble going from the arms of one adult to another. Several months pass, and baby turns an intellectual corner. "As a baby's brain matures, she realizes that things still exist even though she can't see them anymore," Dr. Brown says.
Enter separation anxiety, which can rear its head when you're dropping your baby off at daycare -- or when you're simply going to the bathroom. And just when you thought it was safe to take a shower, it makes another appearance around 15 months. It's a little different this time around. Your child understands that you're somewhere else when you leave, but she doesn't know if you're leaving for a minute -- or forever. The result, as Melanie Nicsinger, of Overland Park, Kansas, discovered, is a lot of crying: "When Zachary turned 16 months old, he'd have a fit if I walked into the next room -- running after me, yelling 'Mama!' terrified at the thought of my being gone."
Compounding things further is your toddler's growing need to control his world. "They don't want you to leave. They can't stop you, and they don't have the language skills to say, 'I'm in charge of the world, and this is not what I wanted you to do,'" says Dr. Brown. "So you get an explosion or temper tantrum."