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Conquering Parental Separation Anxiety

Becoming a parent is an experience fraught with emotion. It’s common for new parents to be blissfully happy and joyous at the birth of their baby one moment and experience an overwhelming sense of responsibility—and sometimes downright fear to do right by this new life—in the next. Unfortunately, as noble as your intentions undoubtedly are, sometimes this intense desire to protect your child from the world outside can lead to a number of problems for you, your child, and your relationships.

Many first-time parents can’t even entertain the thought of leaving their babies in the care of another person, no matter how much they may need time to themselves—even if it’s only to catch up on some much-needed sleep. The idea of leaving their child for just a short amount of time is enough to fill them with dread and guilt. “Of course I believed that no one else could possibly take care of my daughter better than I could, not for even a minute,” says mom Penney Jordan. “If I found myself fantasizing about how much I would enjoy a long bubble bath I would immediately be filled with intense guilt. How could I even of think of myself when Emma was the most important person in my life?”

Jordan recalls that it took extreme fatigue to get her to realize that she needed time out. “When I finally reached the stage where I was so tired that I couldn’t function properly and literally hadn’t let Emma out of my sight since her birth, I realized I was probably doing my child more harm than good in this state,” she says. “I also realized how desperately I needed a break, not from my child but from being a mother.” Jordan was finally able to ask her own mother to come over and look after Emma while she had some time to take a nap and a bath. At first it was a struggle even for her to be in a different room than Emma, but eventually she was able to leave the house while her mother babysat.

What Penney Jordan experienced was maternal separation anxiety. We typically hear about children experiencing feelings of distress when they’re separated from a parent, but in fact, mothers can become victims of this syndrome, too. “Maternal separation anxiety is an unpleasant emotional state of worry, guilt, and sadness experienced by mothers during a short-term separation from their infant” says Hui-Chin Hsu, Ph.D., in a report “Antecedents and consequences of separation anxiety in first-time mothers: infant, mother, and social-contextual characteristics” for the Department of Child and Family Development at the University of Georgia.

The report states that while feeling anxious about separation from your child may be normal—and even healthy—for parents of young children, excessive separation anxiety may be maladaptive and detrimental to parents’ mental health, which in turn may wield negative impacts on their parenting behaviors and the child’s development. The study also found that mothers express higher levels of separation anxiety when their infants suffer from colic or other health-related vulnerabilities. So what’s a mom to do if she needs a little time for herself but just can’t tear herself away from baby? Try the following tips on dealing with maternal separation anxiety:

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