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 their 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. He continued to wail and scream, with check-ins only making it worse.
After he “woke up,” he played happily in the living room, but fussed if I walked away to the kitchen. What happened to my sweet little boy who could play with no problem, whether I was in the room or not? I wondered.
Separation anxiety in babies usually begins around this time (and reincarnates in toddlerhood). It seems to occur out of nowhere, signaling their 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 positive milestones and benefits:
- Their anxiety shows that they have developed a strong attachment to their loved ones, so much so that they’ll cry if we leave their sight.
- They’re becoming more assertive, learning that their actions—crying, fussing—can have an impact on their surroundings.
- Overcoming normal adversity teaches resilience.
Still, that doesn’t make this time in their lives all that pleasant. Thankfully there are several ways to handle separation anxiety in babies:
1. Encourage attachment to other caregivers
Start early by introducing your baby to other caregivers. This could be as simple as having others hold him, even if he fusses, so you can use the bathroom. Perhaps another adult can play with him while you step out for a 30-minute jog.
Introduce him to a variety of adults who love and care for him. Grandparents, relatives, and a nanny signal to him that he’s raised in a village—that more than one person can provide the love, safety, and essentials he needs.
The more he’s exposed to other adults—especially those he can see regularly—the more he’ll feel he’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,” 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 he can’t see you, even for a few seconds. He’s reassured that just because you’re not visible to him, that doesn’t mean you’re gone forever.
One of the best ways to cement this idea is through playing peek-a-boo. This simple game teaches him—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 return.
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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 him that you’re still here is to talk or sing to him while you step out for a quick second.
Let’s say you need to place him 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 him that you’re still around, even if he 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 he 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 he knows what to expect. Routines provides a much-needed normalcy in his life. It’s especially useful when he’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 him to sleep. This predictability will start to feel familiar, and erase one more thing he has to feel uncertain about.
6. 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 him of his own feelings. Even as an infant, he’ll love the familiar books and ideas that he himself is starting to formulate in his mind.
Books will also remind you that his behavior, though surprising and frustrating, is normal for his age. This will help you stay calm and confident the next time he cries when you’re apart.
7. Say goodbye—calmly and quickly
Don’t sneak out on your baby, no matter how much it hurts to hear him cry when you’re leaving.
Sneaking off only will make him feel more anxious in the future, as he doesn’t know if you’ve left or not. He’s also likely to feel more miserable the rest of the time, or break down once you’re reunited as he unloads his emotions.
At nap time, explain that it’s time to sleep, and that you’ll see him shortly after. Keep your goodbyes simple, calm, and confident—crazy fan fare makes him think your absence a bigger deal than it is.
8. 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 returning from the bathroom. Reassure him you’re here, that you had just gone to the bathroom, and that you’re happy to see him too.
9. 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 can’t talk yet, we tend overlook their needs or forget to treat them as we would others. Simple ways to treat your baby with respect during separation anxiety include:
- Saying goodbye and hello
- Explaining where you’re going
- Reassuring him that mama’s right outside in the living room while he naps
- Telling him how proud you are of him for trying to nap
- Reminding him how much you missed him while you were away
- Describing what he must be feeling (“Are you scared when you don’t see mama?”)
Separation anxiety in babies is normal, however much of a hassle it can feel. But by taking the steps to assure your baby, you can cope through this phase gently and easily.
Start by getting him used to other adults, reminding him that he’s cared for by a village of people, not just you. Play peek-a-boo to establish object permanence, and that you’ll always return even if he can’t see you. Talk or sing while he can’t see you, and offer a comfort item he can grow attached to.
Stay consistent routines so he has a familiarity he can take comfort in. Read books about separation anxiety, both to assure him and remind you that this is normal. When you do leave, do so calmly and quickly, and make it a happy reunion when you return as well.
And finally, treat him with respect, saying goodbye as you would to anyone else.
Separation anxiety in babies reminds us how much they love us—even if they cry for the two minutes we were in the bathroom.
Get more tips:
- 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
Don’t forget: Join my newsletter and discover the 5 mistakes that are keeping him from self-soothing below—at no cost to you: