Approved by the Medical Advisory Board
Reviewed by Paul Young, M.D.
Last updated: July 2006
Do all babies experience separation anxiety?
Yes, to a degree. At certain stages, most babies or toddlers will show true anxiety and be upset at the prospect — or reality — of being separated from a parent. If you think about separation anxiety in evolutionary terms, it makes sense: A defenseless baby would naturally get upset at being separated from the person who protects and cares for him.
In many ways, attitudes about babies and separations are cultural. Western countries tend to stress autonomy from a very early age. But in many other cultures, infants are rarely separated from their mother in the first year of life.
Regardless of the origins of this normal developmental stage, it's frustrating for babies and parents. The good news is that separation anxiety will pass and there are ways to make it more manageable. And in the meantime, enjoy the sweetness of knowing that to your child, you're number one.
When does it most commonly occur?
Babies can show signs of separation anxiety as early as 6 or 7 months, but the crisis age for most babies is between 12 to 18 months. Most commonly, separation anxiety strikes when you or your spouse leaves your child to go to work or run an errand. Babies can also experience separation anxiety at night, safely tucked in their cribs with Mom and Dad in the next room.
How can I help my baby through it?
Several options are available to parents:
Minimize separations as much as possible and take your baby along if he seems to feel anxious. With this option, you're basically waiting for your baby to outgrow this stage.
If you have to leave your baby — for example, to return to work — try leaving him with people who are familiar, like his father, grandmother, or aunt. Your baby may still protest, but he might adjust more easily to your absence when surrounded by well-known faces.
If you need to leave your child with someone he doesn't know, give him a chance to get to know his caregiver while you're still around. (See below.)
How should I prepare my baby for separations?
As with any transition, give your baby an opportunity to gradually get used to the idea. Whether you're leaving him with a family member or a paid childcare provider, try the following suggestions:
• New sitter. Let your baby get comfortable. Ask a new sitter to visit and play with your baby several times before leaving them alone for the first time. For your first real outing, ask the sitter to arrive about 30 minutes before you depart so that she and the baby can be well engaged before you step out the door. Employ the same approach at a daycare center or at your nursery, church, or health club.
• Always say goodbye. Kiss and hug your baby when you leave and tell him where you're going and when you'll be back, but don't prolong your goodbyes.
• Always say goodbye: Part 2. Resist the urge to sneak out the back door. Your baby will only become more upset if he thinks you've disappeared into thin air.
• Keep it light. Your baby is quite tuned in to how you feel, so show your warmth and enthusiasm for the caregiver you've chosen. And don't cry or act upset if your baby starts crying — at least not while he can see you. You'll both get through this. The caregiver will probably tell you later that your baby's tears stopped before you were even out of the driveway.
• Once you leave, leave. Repeated trips back into the house or daycare center to calm your baby will make it harder on you, your child, and the caregiver.
How should we handle nighttime separation anxiety?
Your baby's fear of being separated from you at night is very real for him, so you'll want to do your best to keep the hours preceding bedtime as nurturing and peaceful (and fun) as possible. In addition:
• Spend some extra cuddle time with your baby before bed by reading, snuggling, and softly singing together.
• If your baby cries for you after you've put him to bed, it's fine to go to him — both to reassure him and to reassure yourself that he's okay. But make your visits "brief and boring," and he'll learn to fall back to sleep without a lot of help from you. [Limit eye and voice contact. Do not pick up child or remove from crib. Simply lay the child down. If you decide to remain in the room with the child, stay as far away from the child as possible, within view, and pretend to sleep.] Eventually, he'll be able to fall asleep on his own.