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Separation Anxiety in Moms-How to cope with being away from your baby

How to cope with being away from your baby

By Heather Turgeon |

One night when my son was a baby, my mom was on caretaking duty while my husband and I went to dinner and a movie.

Before leaving, I went over the precise order and timing of the bedtime routine with her: bath, PJs in the bedroom, books on the couch with a bottle, fan on low, “Twinkle Twinkle,” then crib. We reviewed the exact protocol in case of crying or nighttime wake ups, double-checked that all numbers were programmed in our phones, and said goodbye.

While still in the driveway, I called her: “But if he really cries, Mom, just go in right away, don’t wait:” My husband and mom both groaned. At dinner, my phone sat next to my plate. In the movie, I checked it like a compulsive tick.

I was anxious about leaving my little guy, whom I had spent months nurturing around the clock. He felt like such a delicate creature at the time; how could anyone else know how to take care of him and fix things like I did?

We know separation anxiety is a natural part of development for babies and kids, but they aren’t the only ones who feel uncomfortable when mom or dad leaves; most parents feel some anxiety about saying goodbye, too. It can be especially intense in the first year, when we worry so much about safety, feeding, sleeping and so on, and sometimes even more so for a stay-at-home parent (for whom breaks are the exception). But it’s also a fixture in some form or another for most parents, even as the years go on.

If you find yourself struggling with separation, here are some tips you might want to consider:

  • Allow yourself to feel anxious. Separation anxiety is the other side of the attachment coin; a healthy bond with your child means a certain degree of discomfort when she’s not there. The goal isn’t to get rid of worry or doubt – in fact, nerves are part of our parenting instinct and they help us make good decisions.
  • Know that other caregivers do things differently. You’ve spent months or years getting to know your little one and fine-tuning your approach. One of the tough parts about leaving your child is the fear that no one else knows the secrets. And that’s true, but kids are surprisingly adaptive. Even as tiny babies, they know the game is different when someone else is in charge. Dad, grandma, or a babysitter – those people will find their own way and might surprise you with the tricks they invent.
  • Separation is an important part of attachment. It’s healthy for your baby to be taken care of by multiple caregivers. As humans evolved, we parented in communities, passing our kids around and sharing the responsibilities. Allowing kids to trust and be cared for by other people only boosts their feeling of community and sense that the world is a safe place.
  • Taking time for yourself isn’t just for fun, it’s for your health. In the early months, if leaving your baby makes you miserable, don’t force it. But as she grows, it’s natural and healthy to start putting pieces of your own life back in the equation. That means lunch with a friend, exercise class, date night – these aren’t just frills. Taking care of yourself is important to you and your child too.
  • Look behind the guilt. Guilt is a common go-to emotion for parents, but it’s not a very useful one. In fact, feeling guilt over being away from your child can be a way of not dealing with other things, like your own independence, working on your partner relationship, engaging in career or important hobbies, and so on. Acknowledge your guilt but don’t let it become your emotional hideout.

When you have a baby, one of the reasons separation causes anxiety is that it’s new, but that unfamiliarity will dissipate over time. Just know that attachment doesn’t mean always physically being there (that’s why research shows kids in quality daycare are just as securely attached). You’ll feel more confident the more times you leave and come back to find that things went just fine. And your child’s bond to you will grow in part through the consistent message that you always come back.

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About Heather Turgeon


Heather Turgeon

Heather Turgeon is currently writing the book The Happy Sleeper (Penguin, 2014). She's a therapist-turned-writer who authors the Science of Kids column for Babble. A northeasterner at heart, Heather lives in Los Angeles with her husband and two little ones. Read bio and latest posts → Read Heather's latest posts →

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11 thoughts on “Separation Anxiety in Moms-How to cope with being away from your baby

  1. carrie says:

    As a developmental psychologist, i really appreciate Heathers articles, which bring a balanced point of view to the established research and interpret the science in simple and applied ways.

  2. mamainjammas says:

    What a great little article. I like the reminder that the anxiety is there for a reason. Keeping that fact in mind I think would help me move beyond the emotion into a better decision-making mode. And very true about the ‘hideout’ factor. Fretting about my baby sometimes feels easier then facing a few of the other issues that may have been neglected lately. Thanks Ms Turgeon!

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  4. Loraine Mendoza says:

    I don’t agree. Leaving your child with multiple caregivers give a different approach and your child needs a sense of security. I feel that once the child becomes a certain age (3-4)that they will have independence and an understanding that mom/dad needs to be away for awhile. Yes once and awhile take sometime away, but that child needs you 24/7 and I feel that you should be with your child as often as possible. Psychotherapist I question, is it guilt or that you often had the child that you are responsible for with different caregivers. Isn’t your responsibility to care for your child and to maintain close family or caregivers as opposed to random babysisters? There are studies as well with children at a young age that have tremedous security problems taken and put in day care or put in a non-custodial’s care and the child becomes resentful of the other parent. Should we as parents wait until our children are old enough to understand other options? Are we putting unnecessary stress on them without understanding how they must feel and what they go through not being able to be with us most of the time? If you can prevent your child from under going stress, wouldn’t you do it? How do you know exactly how they feel? I know that there are parents that need to work without a doubt or they will drown in bills, Understandable, but it’s a few years of making sure that you are doing and providing the best care possible for your child, if this is something that you can do financially.

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  6. Science of Kids says:

    @Loraine: I appreciate your point of view – if you get a chance, read the above link (last paragraph of the article) on Daycare Research. Thanks – Heather

  7. Kiona says:

    No question this is the place to get this info, thkans y’all.

  8. Staci says:

    Loraine, I do agree with you. I’ve chosen to be with my kids 24/7 and I allow them to be around only family and friends who my kids are familiar with. I do believe that there is a psychosis here when we push our kids to be too independent to soon. It takes away from them and it’s been proven in studies. Some people will disagree but I choose to be close to my kids and have them close to me all the time. I never get tired of them asking me for things because that’s how you teach them to be individuals through these everyday talks and conversations. I believe that how we choose to raise out kids today will impact their future….

  9. Becky says:

    I am a mom to a 5-year-old special needs child and just learned a few days ago that my in-laws want to take him on a week-long trip to a different corner of the state. He has never spent the night with anyone but his parents and has never been separated from me for more than 24 hours since his birth. To top it off, he hasn’t seen his grandparents in about 2 years and they plan to come pick him up, drive 6 hours and spend a week with him in their cabin. The last time someone babysat and had to put him to bed (even in his own bed mind you) he cried the whole time and kept asking for me. As much as I would really enjoy the time to be alone with my husband and get to do some fun things, I’m having some serious anxiety just thinking about it even though it’s 2 months away. If things went sour, it’s not like I can just go pick him up. He will be on the other side of the state, and for no less than 5 days. I tried suggesting to my in-laws having them spend the night in town the day before they leave just to see how things went but they have completely ignored me and won’t respond to my text so I have no idea if this is even something they would consider. My husband thinks I’m being overly protective; however, my dad understands my concerns since he is the one who watches him for us when my husband and I go on dates. I really don’t know how to cope with my emotions right now.

  10. Naira Sargissian says:

    This response is for Becky, if I were in your situation I would not let my son be taken to this week long trip. I cannot even imagine my 1 year old daughter spending 1 single night in my parents in-law’s house. They are my neighbors and hopefully I will never have to leave my daughter over night at their house. But considering all the circumstances you described and your child’s special needs, I would not, with all due respect, let him be taken for 1 week so far. And let them be upset about it, they will need to get over it sooner or later. Let them visit over at your place, instead.

  11. Melinda says:

    I am a mother of four and I am very young still. My first child was at 14 I know I know I had to grow up fast and it’s been a very learning experience. I now have four children with my husband of 11 years. I am now 25 and my baby baby who just turned five will be attending school in August. I have been a stay at home mom for all my life. Now that she is going to school I can go back to school and work :) yay! However I am starting to feel scared and sad and I am going to miss her. She is my last baby and now that she is growing up :( Ugh change sucks! I will forever cherish my memories and be greatful I got to stay at home with them to watch them grow. I am a fulltime mommy now what do I do? Please give me some advice I am very sad about her leaving and feel this anxiety eating at me. Thank you so much!

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