Separation anxiety can be tricky to navigate with your baby - while you might know that it's best for them to gain independence, it's never fun to hear your little one get upset! One of the best things you can do is to be proactive about separation anxiety, and know the stages before they actually start.
Here we'll go over what stages constitute separation anxiety, how you can recognise the signs in your baby, and how you can manage each stage as it appears, so that you and baby can get through this normal part of development without too many tears - and with plenty of reunion cuddles!
In this article
The three main separation anxiety stages - when do they occur?
Separation anxiety in babies and children is the uncertainty that comes from feeling as though you're without the comfort of your caregiver - usually mom or dad. Separation anxiety is a normal stage to go through at multiple ages, and is nothing to worry about, but that doesn't mean it's always easy to handle!
Typically, there are three stages that make up a baby's separation anxiety response to a situation like you leaving to go to work: protest, despair, and detachment. For instance, a toddler will likely call for you to come back as you leave, seem hopeless and distraught when you've just left, and eventually will seemingly recover (though lasting damage can be done if the separation is for an extended period).
However, these stages manifest slightly differently depending on the age of your child - usually getting louder and more tearful in the process as they become more independent and aware of their surroundings!
How do you recognise separation anxiety - at any stage?
There are a few typical ways that a baby or child's separation anxiety can manifest, and most are pretty easy to spot once you notice them:
Increased clinginess - It's certainly flattering when your little one doesn't want to leave your side, but it can also be a sign that they're anxious for you to leave them - even for short periods.
Crying when you leave the room - This can be particularly frustrating at bedtime, when you just want baby (and you) to be able to get some sleep, as well as distressing and guilt inducing for parents.
Resistance to being put down to bed - Babies fight sleep for other reasons in a lot of cases - overstimulation, teething, even overtiredness - but separation anxiety can also be the root cause of a baby who doesn't want to settle at bedtime.
Increased nighttime wake ups and crying - These tend to occur because your baby is waking up at a couple points throughout the night and suddenly has the awareness that you aren't there - and that they want you back right now!
Stranger anxiety - Your baby has only been in the world for a few months, and they've likely only spent time with you and a few select others, so it's understandable that seeing new faces can take some getting used to!
Key separation anxiety stages - and how to prepare
Though separation anxiety can occur at any age beyond around 3 months, there are a few specific ages where various developmental factors lead to situations where separation anxiety is more likely to show itself.
Separation anxiety at 3-7 months
Separation anxiety may occur at this age because this is when babies learn object permanence. This is a phenomenon that we develop around this age in which we start to remember objects that aren't immediately in front of us - and therefore, in the case of parents, we can miss them when they're gone.
You can prepare for this early stage in a number of ways:
- Begin sleep training with any method of your choosing when your baby reaches 4 months or older so that you have a consistent bedtime routine with positive sleep associations, and get baby used to you being gone for short periods
- Play peek a boo to further reinforce their sense of object permanence and help them understand that whenever you go, you'll always come back (this game has the extra benefit of being super cute!)
- Use our gently weighted Zen Sleepwear™ designed to mimic your touch during naps and nighttime sleep to help your baby learn to self soothe without you there
- Be gradual when leaving your baby with other caregivers to avoid creating negative associations between you leaving and them arriving
Here's how baby expert Carrie Bruno from The Mama Coach recommends you deal with separation anxiety at this age:
'Make sure your child is fed and rested before trying to leave. A tired and/or hungry baby is not as able to adapt to change or respond to mom leaving. Try to plan your departure for after a feed, during the nap, or right after the nap.' - Carrie Bruno for Jillian Harris
Separation anxiety at 9-10 months
Unlike the stage at 3-7 months, more robust separation anxiety can develop at 9-10 months due to your baby gaining a greater concept of time. While before they wouldn't necessarily understand whether you were leaving for a second or an hour, their knowledge of their own daily routine may now lead to them knowing when it's time for you to go to work or to drop them off for child care.
They can also now distinguish properly between you as their primary caregiver and other adults - while you know that they can be trusted to take care of your baby, your baby only knows that they\re an unfamiliar person, and that they aren't the same as you!
Here's a few tips that you can follow to help soothe your baby when separation anxiety occurs at this age:
- Stick to a short goodbye routine that reassures your little one but that doesn't go on for too long as to make a big deal of you leaving - and make sure that you leave and come back at similar times each day to create a consistent routine that makes them feel secure without you.
- Start to sleep train or maintain your existing sleep training method, even if your baby is fighting sleep or going through a regression. We can't stress enough that consistency is key to a secure and happy baby, and a consistent sleep schedule can do wonders for their mood during the day too!
- Don't just sneak out without saying goodbye, as this removes your baby's sense of security and reinforces the idea that you can just vanish out of thin air - not a calming thought!
- Try using our Zen Sleepwear when putting baby to bed or leaving them at home with someone else - because they're gently weighted, your baby can feel your soothing touch even when you aren't right there with them.
Here's some advice from Alicia Betz, who uses the Zen Sack™ to soothe her baby to sleep:
'What really sets this sleep sack apart from all the others is the weight feature. Nested Bean calls this the Cuddle Effect — babies are naturally calmed and soothed by touch, and feeling that gentle pressure activates that effect.
It's basically like keeping your hand on top of your child's tummy or back to put them to sleep, but a lot easier.' - Alicia Betz, Business Insider
Separation anxiety at 12-18 months
If separation anxiety persists past a year, it's likely once again because of new psychological developments your baby has made - in this case, they'll be feeling more independent than they did a few months ago, and therefore more aware of time apart! Because of this extra confidence and sense of self, they might start to protest more when you leave too - and it's not easy going out to work while your child cries at the door.
Luckily, there are still plenty of things you can do to soothe separation anxiety, even at this stage of childhood development where anxiety reactions may be more intense:
- Overlap with your caregiver arriving when you leave to ease your little one into spending time with someone else if they have some stranger anxiety.
- Alternate who handle the bedtime routine with your partner if possible, as this can get your baby used to spending time without you - even if it's just with their other parent or caregiver!
- Try to stay upbeat during goodbyes - seeing you upset will only reinforce that they should be sad too, so even if it's tough, try to save your sad face for after you've left baby at home!
- Consistency is still the most important component of keeping your child calm, so ensure you have a stable foundation with your daily routine even if your baby is experiencing exciting new things like playdates or daycare.
- Put a fussy toddler to bed with the Zen Sack to remind them of your touch and help them self soothe without you in the room.
Here's what parenting expert Dr. Laura Markham has to say about helping an anxious toddler:
'You may need a hot bath and a cup of tea at the end of the day, but your toddler has a pent up need for you. Of course he’s demanding. He’s stressed, and he needs your calm, loving presence to unwind and relax. Make the simplest dinner you can, keep things calm, avoid power struggles, and look for opportunities to connect. Be sure he gets a lot of opportunities to laugh, to get those tensions out. And leave extra time for cuddling at bedtime.' - Dr. Laura Markham, Aha! Parenting
Separation anxiety, at its core, is a sign of the unshakeable bond that you and your baby share. Though it's not always easy to handle, it's only temporary, and your baby will eventually learn that no matter where you go, you'll always come back to them.
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