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10 Strategies for Dealing with Separation Anxiety

Although the hardest time for you to leave your child is probably in infancy, babies younger than 6 months old can often do fine without you for a night or two (especially if you're not nursing). That's because they haven't yet grasped the concept of object permanence -- that you exist even when you're not with them. But by 7 or 8 months, children have become aware that when you leave, you're somewhere out there, says Martha Farrell Erickson, PhD, so they're much more prone to separation anxiety. That anxiety can last well past your child's first birthday, so if your baby has a bad case, you may want to avoid traveling for a while. You also shouldn't leave town if your child has just been through a traumatic change, such as weaning or a family move.

If possible, have your child stay in his own home with someone he knows well -- grandparents, a caregiver. If he has to be away from home, don't separate him from his siblings, and make sure he has his favorite blankie. Routine is especially important for younger babies, notes Donna Holloran, owner of Babygroup, Inc., a Santa Monica, California, center that helps parents interact with their young children. Since a 4-month-old is too young to comprehend why Mom isn't with him, the most you can do is keep his daily routine the same.

Children really need to learn to trust you, so forecasting and then doing what you say you're going to do is very important, notes Erickson. For kids under 3, a heads-up one or two days before you go is plenty. And don't skip an explanation because you think your child is too young to understand. Your tone of voice and your attitude send a message to your kids before they understand all the words, Erickson explains.

Whether he'll be going to the zoo with Uncle Sid or baking cookies with Nana and Pop-Pop, emphasize how much fun your child will have while you're gone. It's also good to acknowledge his anxiety, says Holloran. You could say, "I know you're going to have a really good time with Grandma -- but it's okay if you miss me. You can tell Grandma you miss Mommy, and I bet Grandma will give you a really big hug."

Before your first kid-free trip, try some short practice runs. You want to help children gradually learn to tolerate separations, Erickson says. Try going out without your child a few nights a week. If that sounds unrealistic, an occasional overnight visit at Grandma's or a few afternoons with a babysitter can also help prepare your child for longer separations. And of course, if your child's in day care, he's already gotten used to being away from you for periods of time -- and he's learning that when you're gone, you eventually come back.

A baby can better adapt to separation if he sees Mommy and Daddy before they go. If he is sleeping or distracted when his parents leave, he may wake up, notice that you're not there, and start crying.

Leave something of yours behind with your baby. She could watch a video that you're in, look at a large picture of you, or sleep in one of your unwashed T-shirts.

Sometime after his second birthday, your child's sense of time improves. He may enjoy crossing out days on a calendar while you're gone, or marking them with stickers. Another idea is to give your child a box or bag of small gifts when you leave town. Then each day you're away, he gets to take out one gift.

Consider sending postcards to your toddler before you leave so they'll arrive early in your absence. E-cards can also be written ahead of time and programmed to arrive when you choose. And of course, for children of all ages, phone calls are very reassuring. If your child starts to cry during your call, Holloran says, it's time to say good-bye -- and perhaps have his caregiver take him outside for a change of scenery.

Many kids -- eager for your attention -- will act a little funny when you arrive home. Often you'll see a bit of regression, says Erickson. It might be thumb sucking when they haven't done that for a while, or they may slip up in their potty training. But just like your child's fear of your leaving, this too shall pass.



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