Separation anxiety, though normal, can surprise many parents. Learn how to gently handle separation anxiety in babies with these tips.
My eight-month-old twins had been champion nappers. I’d put them in cribs and close the door, reassured they could put themselves to sleep in five minutes tops.
So imagine my surprise when one of them cried after I left the room. And cried and cried, with check-ins only making it worse.
After he “woke up,” he played happily in the living room—but fussed and cried if I walked away to the kitchen. “What happened to my sweet little boy who could play with his toys no problem whether I was in the room or not?”
Separation anxiety in babies usually begins around this time (and reincarnates in toddlerhood). It seems to occur out of nowhere. And it signals the baby’s understanding that their parents exist apart from them.
Before that, they were still in womb-land, thinking that we are all one and the same.
Only months later do they realize we’re separate people, and this notion scares them. Why? They realize that because we’re separate beings, we can leave. And they’re frightened we won’t come back.
How to gently handle separation anxiety in babies
Separation anxiety can be hard to cope with. But this phase can signal several impressive milestones and benefits:
- Their anxiety shows that they have developed a strong attachment to their loved ones, so much so that they will cry if you even leave their sight.
- They’re becoming more assertive. And they’re learning that their actions—crying, fussing—can have an impact on their surroundings.
- Overcoming normal adversity is positive, as it teaches them resilience.
Still, that doesn’t make this time in their lives all that pleasant. Thankfully there are several ways to handle separation anxiety.
1. Encourage attachment to other caregivers
Start early by introducing your baby to other caregivers. This could be as simple as having others hold the baby, even as she fusses, so you can use the bathroom. Or perhaps another adult can play with her while you step out for a 30-minute jog.
Introduce her to a variety of adults who love and care for her. Grandparents, relatives and nannies signal to babies that they’re raised in a village—that more than one person can provide the love, safety, and essentials she needs.
The more your baby is exposed to other adults—especially those she can see often—the more she’ll feel she’s in safe hands, even without you.
2. Play peek-a-boo
In the first few months, babies still believe that what they can’t see, can’t exist. Nor do they know with certainty whether what they can’t see will ever come back… including you.
As they grow, they begin to learn “object permanence,” or the idea that something or someone continues to exist, even if they can’t see them.
By learning this concept, your baby is less likely to feel anxious or worried if she can’t see you, even for a few seconds. She’s reassured that just because she can’t see you, doesn’t mean you’re gone forever.
And one of the best ways to cement that idea further is through playing peek-a-boo. This simple game teaches her—in short bursts of fun—that being out of sight doesn’t mean you won’t come back. Not only is this a delightful game, it’s a fantastic exercise in learning that you’ll always come back.
3. Talk or sing while you’re in another room
Does your baby cry if you so much as leave the room? One simple way to remind her that you’re still here is to talk or sing to her while you step out for a quick second.
Let’s say you need to place her in the portable play pen in the living room so you can pour yourself a cup of tea in the kitchen. Continue to hold a conversation or sing a song as you step out of sight and into the next room.
Hearing your voice reassures her that you’re still around, even if she can’t see you just yet.
4. Offer a special toy
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All three of my kids have a special lovey that they’ve had since they were infants, perfect for when they were learning to sleep on their own. And while they share nearly every toy, they get to have full ownership of their own lovey, to mark how special it is for them.
This attachment to special toys, lovies, or blankies can help your baby’s separation anxiety. A comfort item can feel reassuring in your absence, something she can hold onto and feel good about.
5. Stick to routines
Whether your baby cries at sleep times or when you walk out the door, create a routine so she knows what to expect. Routines provides a much-needed normalcy in her life. It’s especially useful when she’s going through stages such as separation anxiety.
At nap times, you may want to draw the curtains, sing a few songs and read a book or two each time you put her to sleep. This predictability will start to feel familiar, and erase one more thing she has to feel uncertain about.
6. Say goodbye—calmly and quickly
Don’t sneak out on your baby, no matter how much it hurts to hear her cry when you’re leaving.
Sneaking off only will make her feel more anxious in the future, as she doesn’t know if you’ve left or not. She’s also likely to feel more miserable the rest of the time, or break down once you’re reunited as she unloads her emotions.
At nap time, explain that it’s time to sleep, and that you’ll see her shortly after. Keep your goodbyes simple, calm, and confident—crazy fan fare makes her think your absence a bigger deal than it is.
7. Make it a happy reunion
It’s easy for us not to fret for the two minutes we were in the bathroom and away from our babies. But to them, those two minutes could feel like an eternity, especially when they don’t yet know if you’re coming back, or what will happen to them.
So when you do reunite, make it a joyous moment, even if it is just from going to the bathroom. Reassure her you’re here, that you had just gone to the bathroom, and that you’re happy to see her too.
8. Read books about separation anxiety
Help your baby cope with separation anxiety by reading books about being apart. Reading introduces new concepts and words to reassure her of her own feelings. Even as an infant, he’ll love the familiar books and ideas that she herself is starting to formulate in her mind.
Books will also remind you that her behavior, though surprising and frustrating, is normal for her age. This will help you stay calm and confident the next time she cries when you’re apart.
Looking for a few book ideas? Check out these 10 children’s books about separation anxiety.
9. Above all, treat your baby with respect
You likely wouldn’t think about leaving the house without saying goodbye to your spouse. The same is true for your baby. Since babies don’t talk yet, we tend overlook their needs or forget to treat them as we would others. Simple ways to treat them with respect during separation anxiety include:
- Saying goodbye and hello
- Explaining where we’re going
- Reassuring them that mama’s right outside in the living room while they nap
- Telling them how proud we are of them for trying to nap
- Reminding them how much we missed them while we were away
- Describing what they must be feeling (“Are you scared when you don’t see mama?”)
My little guy tapered off his separation anxiety and is back to napping and playing. In hindsight, I wish I had done more describing his feelings and explaining what’s going on.
But I made sure not to make him feel bad for what he was going through. Separation anxiety is normal, after all, and one that many babies goes through.
It reminds us of just how much our babies can love, so much so that even two minutes apart is just two minutes too long.
p.s. Struggling with putting your baby to sleep? Wish he could learn to self soothe and sleep on his own? Join my newsletter and discover the 5 mistakes that are keeping your baby from self-soothing!
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Get more tips on handling your child’s separation anxiety:
- 10 Children’s Books about Separation Anxiety
- What You Should Know about Separation Anxiety
- How to Deal when Your Child Cries at Drop Off
- How to Get Things Done with a Baby
- Extracurricular Activities: My Child Freaks Out and Clings Onto Me
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