The Bye-Bye Blues

If your baby starts screaming the minute you leave, check out our separation survival guide.

As an infant, my son, Will, cooed whenever he saw Grandma. He loved cuddling in her arms as she sang to him. But when he turned 7 months old, he wasn't quite so comfortable. One night when my mother came over to babysit, Will clung to me and then cried his eyes out as I left the house. The experience had me—as well as my mother—on the verge of tears. But it turns out that there was really nothing to worry about. Will was merely going through the predictable stage of separation anxiety.

Between the ages of 6 and 9 months, a baby learns that he's a separate being from his parents, and he is capable of distinguishing them from other caregivers. His memory has improved too; he's able to recall images (whether it's a ball he likes playing with or Mommy's face) even when they're out of sight. These are exciting cognitive advances for him, but in the short term they may cause him to feel abandoned when you go away. "Separation anxiety is a sign that your baby misses you when you're not there, and that's good," says Kathleen McCartney, Ph.D., a professor at Harvard University's School of Education. What's even better is that it's merely a passing phase and usually begins to subside at about 15 months.

Exit strategies

Almost all babies get anxious about separating at some point, though the intensity of your child's reaction depends on her temperament. Other factors play a role too: Infants who have been exposed early on to caregivers other than their parents tend to have an easier time dealing with departures in later months. However, if your baby is tired, hungry, or sick, she's likely to give you a very hard time if you leave. While your baby's cries may tempt you to cancel your plans, giving in will only make matters worse the next time you need to leave. Besides, she'll probably calm down shortly after you walk out the door. In the meantime, here's what you can do to comfort your child.

  • Get her used to the idea. Prepare your baby for your absence by having her cope with small separations first. Place her in a baby activity center for a few minutes, then head to another room. Talk to her so she knows you're still there even though she can't see you. If she fusses, don't go back for a few minutes. Your goal is to teach her to play by herself. Also try hiding one of her favorite toys under a blanket (and then revealing it). Or play peekaboo. These games help teach your baby the concept of object permanence and reinforce the idea that while you may go away for a while, you'll always return.
  • Start the sitter early. Have your babysitter arrive at least 30 minutes before you leave so that your child can get comfortable with her. "It's well worth the extra money," says Janet Nelson, Ph.D., a child psychologist in Montclair, New Jersey. If you're going back to work, have your caregiver begin a couple of weeks early. That way, you can leave your baby for short stretches and slowly build up for the big day. Make sure your sitter knows your child's favorite toys, snacks, and diversions, as well as the best soothing techniques. These will help ease your baby's anxiety.
  • Don't sneak out. Watching your baby cry is painful, but taking off when your child is asleep or in another room isn't the answer. "If your baby turns around and you're not there, he'll feel he can't trust you, which will only increase his anxiety," Dr. Nelson says. If you're desperate to sidestep a tearful farewell, a change of scenery may be helpful: Have your sitter and the baby leave the house with you, then say goodbye when you reach the corner.
  • Reassure her. Your baby will accept your departure more readily if you follow a consistent routine. You might give her a special snack, then look at a book together. When you're done, kiss her and go—lingering makes the separation harder on your baby. And since seeing you stressed out may upset her even more, always leave with a smile on your face.
  • Have a happy return. Reunion rituals not only strengthen the bond with your baby but also help relieve future separation anxiety. You might greet him with a hug and say, "Mommy's back, and I'm so excited to see you." But it's best to follow your child's lead. If he's playing on the floor, get down and join him. If he babbles, talk back. Doing these things will help your baby forget how sad he was when you went away—and focus on how happy he is that you're back.

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