Oh the dreaded separation anxiety…non-parents don’t understand. They think it’s cute, that your kid wants to be close to you. Nothing is sweeter than a baby who loves his Mom,right? Honestly, it can be cute and feel heart-warming after a long day at work, but sometimes you just need that SPACE.
I have a friend who shall remain unnamed, and her son hit that milestone right on time, sadly. Suddenly she couldn’t leave the room any longer to go to the bathroom or get the laundry started. Instead, she had to pick him up and take him with her, since he couldn’t very well walk.
Believe it or not separation anxiety is a hallmark milestone that develops around six or seven months and then just lingers as long as it needs to. We’ll get more into what this means a little later one.
Some babies are able to grow out of it pretty quick if you work on teaching them you aren’t leaving forever, but some just aren’t capable of understanding that until they are a little older, around 10 to 18 months.
So as cute as it seems to some people, we parents know that it’s the most frustrating thing ever. God forbid you want to poop in peace, nope. That toddler will need to be playing with toys in the bathroom. Don’t worry because he will shut the door for you. And then cry when he can’t open it again.
We’re going to go over some of the causes behind this awful, and important, stage of childhood. Then we can take some tips and see what may apply to your own children. The more things to try the more likely you are to find success.
What This Milestone Means
Like we said earlier, separation anxiety is actually a normal, and important, milestone for them to cross. When a baby is born they can’t really tell the difference between you and them. Eventually they end up learning you two are separate people. Once your baby realizes that if you leave the room then they are alone, that’s when the separation anxiety sets in.
My friend’s son’s first little mark of independence wasn’t him realizing he could cry for her attention at four months, it was realizing that if he fake coughed she would give him attention.
She learned pretty quickly that the cough wasn’t real, but he was still so small that she had to check. Plus, it was hysterical that he was fake coughing to get her attention.
Once your little love bug hits seven to twelve months, he will begin to realize he is his own person. As fun and fascinating as that will be for him, it will also be terrifying. He will recognize that you can actually leave him and not be just around the corner.
So if you even start to put your shoes on or grab your keys you can expect your baby to throw himself at your feet, wailing. Even if you’re just running to the car to grab the sippy cup you left in his car seat he will act like you’re leaving forever and never returning.
Don’t try to sneak out though, babies definitely understand betrayal. Suddenly realizing you aren’t there might even make them more upset than if you said goodbye in the first place. He might think you’re never coming home even more certainly this time.
Between one and two years old your baby will start to realize that you come back. He will remember that you have left before and have always come back, so it shouldn’t stress him too much when you leave.
Dealing With Separation Anxiety
This stage of crying hysterically the moment we even suggest we might be leaving, even if the baby is coming with us, is not the most exciting era to deal with. For some babies it can be even worse than what we’ve said, and they may lose it entirely for a while after as well.
That’s why you have to keep a few things in mind, including the fact that your baby really thinks you’re a part of them and if you leave, you’re gone forever. Try not to get angry even as your baby screams in your ear.
Let’s go over a few different tips and tricks to dealing with your sweet little one’s separation anxiety.
Don’t Get Angry
This seems like the obvious instruction, but it’s important because your baby will understand your anger, even if they don’t understand why. Your baby is very in tune with your emotions so when you’re angry it can just make things worse. It may make them cry harder, cling tighter, or associate you leaving with even more negative emotions.
If you are a working parent you may feel guilty for leaving your child every day, but you are doing what you have to do provide for them. I’m not going to say that staying at home with them is a luxury, because just as many moms, who can’t leave work because they need the money, are other families that can’t afford the mom to go to work just to have to pay for daycare.
Breaking even financially can happen in many tax brackets. So if you have to drop off your little one to go to work, remember that it’s kind of what you have to do and they will survive being without you for a few hours. When they’re older they won’t be able to wait to get away from you, so enjoy it for now.
Have A Goodbye Routine
This was mentioned earlier, but you should never try to sneak out, your child is smarter than that. They will be upset knowing you left and they didn’t realize and may feel higher levels of stress searching the house for you.
Your baby knows you’re leaving and you can’t hide it, so try to make a routine out of it. Be a little attentive before you go, but don’t make a huge scene out of it. If you linger too long then you make the leaving even harder on the little one. I know, it’s complicated.
Be sure to keep consistency as you go forward. So if you give a cuddle and a tickle before waving bye-bye then do it every time. Eventually your baby will associate you leaving that way with always coming back. Plus, babies are comfortable with the familiar.
Introduce a Lovey
My friend’s son had meltdowns in the public restrooms all of a sudden. She didn’t know what it was, but around 11 months he couldn’t bear to be changed in a public restroom. She couldn’t place him on the changing table, and she couldn’t stand him on the floor.
There was twenty pounds of terrified infant clinging to her chest while she tried to work her pants first down, and then up, somehow wiping in-between. Trying to change his diaper while he was flinging himself wildly into the air was a whole new challenge.
After one particularly trying venture she told me that she walked out into the store and he was still flipping out. She had no idea what to do and he was hanging by the ends of her hair screeching. She ended up just reaching out and grabbing the first toy she found and gave it to him…it happened to be a small, soft plush otter. That was it. He was content again.
This otter was dragged everywhere, through all the dirt, sand, and un-chewed food imaginable. If he was scared or nervous she just passed him the otter and everything was calm again. He felt the otter was his safety net and could have a bit more confidence when holding the otter.
Bathrooms still freaked him out, but the otter could be clutched to cover his face so he didn’t have to grin and bear it. Thank god for that otter or I know my friend probably would have lost her mind within the next few weeks.
You can start trying to introduce a safety blanket or stuffed animal around four months, but my baby showed no interest until the magical otter fell from the sky. Every baby is different of course. If you left your baby more than I had to then they might benefit from a lovey sooner than others.
As awful as it sounds, it could be possible to orchestrate an event that leads to your baby clinging to some blanket or animal to help them feel safe. If you know something freaks them out and you have a soft toy, try and get the toy to “save” them in a moment where they are scared and insecure.
This is only a good idea if your baby is already skittish as is, because this gives them the chance to find potential comfort that isn’t just involved in ripping your shirt down across your boobs.
“I’ll be right back”
Don’t make the same mistake I did guys, don’t lie to your kid. If you say good-bye for the day you better mean it. Don’t try and surprise them by coming right back to see them because you wanted an extra minute hanging out. You’re trying to be cute but all they know is you said good-bye and came back, so you lied to them.
The mistake is not realizing your kid understands what you’re saying. Just because they can’t talk yet doesn’t mean your twelve month old can’t feel your intentions or understand specific words. If you say you will be right back, maybe you’re taking out the trash, then be sure to mean it. Come back.
They may relax more when you say you’ll be right back, but they’ll freak out even more if you promise to come back and then never do. Your child has to learn both independence and trust. If you want them to do that then you can’t break their trust repeatedly as it sets a bad precedent.
Separation anxiety is frustrating but normal. Know that your baby is developing right on time the way they should. Maybe you should find it a bit comforting to know they’re just following the steps of growing up.
The important thing to remember here is that you love your child and they love you, and this stage won’t last forever. Many of my mom friends could have used that reminder when they were struggling, feeling guilty for not having enough money and feeling guilty for not being around enough.
They all sacrificed so much and it felt like they were losing their time with their kids over it. You do what you have to as a parent, so cherish the moments you have.
When he wails and refuses to fall asleep unless you’re cradling him, cherish it. If he covers his face and the floor in beans and laughs when he throws them, cherish it.
Parenting is hard, thankless work. Your kid won’t appreciate you until well past the time when you deserve it, but that’s okay. We don’t do it for the thanks. We do it because those little hands tighten around us when we reappear and save the day. We do it because they stop crying and smile when we greet them in the morning.
Separation anxiety is definitely not fun to manage, but you will handle it well just like every other parent. Eventually they will grow out of it and you’ll just have to deal with the next hurdle.