Just before your child’s first birthday, you may notice that he becomes increasingly tearful and fussy when you try to leave him in another’s care – even if it’s a beloved babysitter or grandparent who has been with him frequently. The cause of this behavior is known as separation anxiety, and while it’s unsettling, it’s a normal part of your baby’s development. Here’s how the way your baby responds to your absences changes as he develops:
Under 6 Months
Newborn babies can adapt to a variety of caregivers easily. During this time, his cries are generally caused by a basic need, such as feeding, sleeping, or burping, instead of anxiety over an unfamiliar caregiver. In fact, it’s more likely in the first few months that new moms and dads suffer from a little separation anxiety as they return to work or leave the baby with the grandparents for a rare night out!
You may notice how fun it is to play peek-a-boo with your baby during this time – that’s because she’s learning the concept of object permanence, or the idea that people and objects still exist even when she can’t see them. Although your baby can understand that you still exist even outside of her range of vision, her concept of time remains limited, and she won’t know when or if you’ll return. This can cause her some anxiety. In addition, because your baby recognizes you as her caregiver, she may become unsettled when another person like a new babysitter or nanny appears to care for her needs. Introduce new caregivers or environments while you’re around, so that your baby understands that another adult will not replace you permanently and that you will return after leaving.
As your baby grows into a more independent toddler, he may be increasingly unsure about being separated from you and become visibly agitated and upset whenever you try to leave. To help ease separation, keep goodbyes short and sweet – coming back to a sobbing child is incentive for him to cry louder and longer next time. Though it can be distressing to see your child this upset, act confident as you say goodbye. If you’re anxious, your baby may pick up on your discomfort. Make sure the caregiver has a toy or game ready to engage your child as you say your quick goodbye.
If your baby was relatively calm throughout infancy, separation anxiety may peak when he’s one to two years old. It can also be set off by major life events, such as the birth of a new sibling or moving to a new home.
As your baby grows older, he will continue to develop his personality and want some control over his life, including trying to keep you around. If this occurs, try engaging your child by giving him a simple task to do as you leave, such as shutting the door, that will give him a sense of control and responsibility and distract him from his tantrum. You can also give your child a concrete time when you’ll return, such as, “Mommy will see you after lunch,” which will reinforce the idea that each time you leave, you’ll come back.
Most children grow out of separation anxiety by age five, and some children never experience it at all. For most kids, separation anxiety is a phase that will pass as they grow more independent and curious about the world beyond your home.