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Static Cling: Separation Anxiety

side view of pale baby pouting

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."

Sometimes parents don't even have to leave the room for a child to get upset. That's Joanna Carabello's concern with 15-month-old Adam. "If I'm in the room, he doesn't like to be held by anyone else," says the Athens, Georgia, mom. "While there's something sweet about being so loved, it can be more than a little burdensome. It hurts his father's and grandparents' feelings."

If your child doesn't want to be held by someone she doesn't know -- or know well -- a bit of stranger anxiety has come into the mix. This applies to people your child has never seen before and those she may have spent time with infrequently, such as a grandparent who lives in another state. And the phenomenon usually happens around the same time as separation anxiety and is also a result of intellectual development. "It means that your child is able to tell the difference between people she's close to and people she doesn't know," says Lu Hanessian, author of Let the Baby Drive: Navigating the New Road of Motherhood (St. Martin's Press). That's all well and good, but if you're a working mom -- or you and your spouse want to go out on the occasional date -- all of these so-called positive developmental changes will leave you pretty frustrated. "You don't want to completely put your life on hold," says Dr. Brown. Nor do you have to. Try these fear-soothing strategies.

  • Practice predictability. Give your child a regular daily routine with bathtime, mealtime, and bedtime rituals he can count on. It will foster a sense of security, and a secure child can adjust to parting from his parents.
  • Make a game of it. Play peekaboo and similar games where you disappear briefly and come back. It will help your child understand that when you leave, you always return.
  • Perform some practice runs. To increase your child's comfort level with separation, leave him for a few short periods of time -- a half hour to an hour -- with someone he knows and trusts. Once he sees that you always return (and that other caregivers are fun and loving, too), try out a babysitter.
  • Have a meet-and-greet. When you choose a sitter for your child, have her over at least once and play together as a threesome before you leave your child with her. If your child sees that you're comfortable with the sitter, she's more likely to feel this way as well.
  • Don't dawdle. Whether it's daycare drop-off or a Saturday night date, the longer you hang around consoling your child, the longer he'll cry and cling. Create a short goodbye ritual, and use it every time. Once you've left, don't go back -- it may provoke more tears.
  • Avoid sneaking out. "It only enhances their anxiety, because you simply disappear. You need to say goodbye, tell them where you're going, and tell them when you'll be back," Dr. Brown says.

And most important, stop worrying. Sometime during the twos, separation anxiety will make its exit. "Now that it's over, I'm relieved," says Debbie Kaplan. "I can leave Zachary at the gym and know he's having fun."

Goodbye Gear

If you're a working parent, separation anxiety may well be the bane of your existence. Put a halt to the daily whining grind with these ideas.

  • Make sure your child has her lovey to comfort her when you're gone.
  • Invest in an inexpensive photo album for your child and fill it with family and pet pictures.
  • Record yourself reading a story or saying "I love you" on tape.

Bears, Bunnies, and Blankies -- Oh My!

If your child likes to schlep around a ratty old blanket or cuddle with a worse-for-wear bear, you're in luck. Experts call them transitional objects, and for good reason; they help young children feel more confident as they shift from being completely dependent upon their parents to being individuals. That smelly stuffed bunny is key in soothing your child when you're not there. You can't control what object your child will attach to or when, but when he makes his choice, try to stock up on a few extras. If a beloved blankie goes missing, a replacement will be in order. However, "Kids usually can tell the difference between a much-loved object and its spiffy replacement," says Ari Brown, MD. You may want to rotate among several of the same objects so they'll all look and smell the same, plus you'll be able to launder them when needed. But if you don't have an acceptable substitute when the first one is misplaced, don't fret. "Kids are fairly adaptable. It takes a few nights or days; they don't go through a prolonged grieving process. They'll soon find a new friend to love," Dr. Brown says.

Diane Benson Harrington, a mother of two, is a writer based in Madison, Wisconsin.

Originally published in American Baby magazine, November 2005.

All content here, including advice from doctors and other health professionals, should be considered as opinion only. Always seek the direct advice of your own doctor in connection with any questions or issues you may have regarding your own health or the health of others.