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Separation Anxiety in Babies

by Katlyn Joy | October 20, 2010 12:00 AM
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Separation Anxiety in Babies

When a wave goodbye goes from being a giggly activity to a tearful drama, you know you've hit that common developmental stage of separation anxiety. Typically, you can expect it to kick in when your baby is about six months of age, but some babies may start it a bit earlier or later.

Causes of Separation Anxiety

You know how baby really starts enjoying playing peek-a-boo? It's because she's in on the joke. She knows now you are still there. She also knows you are a separate person from her; And that's not quite so funny when you leave.

While it is a normal stage of development, you might have a more severe case on your hands if your child has to undergo any major changes or stressors during this time. If you can avoid any big moves or schedule changes during this sensitive period it would be helpful, but of course some changes cannot be avoided. If you must put your little one through a major upheaval during this time, treat him with extra loving care, as if he were sick. It's a rough patch an TLC is an effective balm.

How Long Does it Last?

Separation anxiety should disappear around 18 months to 2 1/2 years. If it persists into preschool years, your child might have an anxiety disorder. This would be suspected if the anxiety interferes with a child's daily life or quality of life, if the child has frequent nightmares or panic attacks, or has excessive fears and worries. If this occurs, consult with a pediatrician. It is a fairly common and treatable disorder but the sooner it's addressed, the better the results.

How to Deal with Separation Anxiety

  1. No sneaking! Don't be tempted to avoid a tearful scene by skipping out. This is only going to upset your child even more and lead to more insecurity.
  2. Tell your child ahead of time what's up and what to expect. Remember your child understands more than you probably realize so go ahead and be pretty detailed.
  3. Be positive. No sad voices, tearful expressions, or nervous tapping. Kids pick up on those and think there really must be something wrong because even you are upset.
  4. Give a label to those feelings. Explain things in terms of sadness, missing, afraid and such emotional terms. "You feel sad for Mommy and want her back home. You miss her, huh? I miss you too, but we'll be back together really soon!"
  5. Leave a bit of you behind. Give your little one a picture, a piece of your clothing or something that helps your child hold onto you.
  6. With older toddlers, practice the separation with role-playing.
  7. Be consistent. If you say you will be home at 5, or by dinner time, then by all means be there! Try to have a fairly predictable schedule.
  8. Use distractions. Make sure your child has something fun and absorbing to do as you are leaving, or even have your sitter take your child for an outing as you leave.
  9. Work your way up to longer separations with ever expanding short ones. Go out for some regular little errands lasting a half-hour before a big night out for hours.
  10. Minimize the emotions by not leaving during a tired, hungry or generally cranky time.

Keeping Yourself Sane

Remember, it is a normal stage but it's OK to have some time out as a parent! It's good for your child to have some time away from you, too and see that you return. It's also a positive sign that your child has separation anxiety. It means your child is attached and aware. Talk to other parents about what has worked for them, and have a buddy to call if you are in puddles of tears of your own when you leave out of guilt or your own fears of separation. Also, remember some personality types have a tougher go of it. The shy, cautious child is going to have a more difficult time with transitions and separations but it's all the more reason to practice and build up their ability in this area one outing at a time.

Katlyn Joy is a freelance writer with a Master's of Arts in Creative Writing. She is mom to seven children, and lives in Denver, Colorado.

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