Is your departure always accompanied by screaming, tears and cries for “mummy”?
Separation anxiety in babies and toddlers is common and a completely normal stage of their development. But that’s of little comfort to you when you’re struggling with a crying child clinging to you.
Whatever the reason may be, sometimes you just need to get away from your baby occasionally.
It might be because you need to go to work, or you’re going out for some “me” time, or you just need a bit of space!
Most babies and toddlers display signs of separation anxiety at some point. Some little ones may be more clingy than others.
The typical signs of separation anxiety are:
- Your child cries when you put them down.
- Your child becomes very upset and cries when you leave the room or house.
- Your child becomes upset at the idea or mention of you leaving.
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Why do babies and toddlers get separation anxiety?
The short answer is, because your baby or toddler loves you so much!
Separation anxiety typically kicks in with babies when they are around three months and begin to become aware of their own sense of self.
They realise the two of you are separate people and that when you leave them, you continue to exist elsewhere.
It also shows your baby has become aware of how dependent they are on you for comfort, warmth, happiness and food.
Separation anxiety will generally be focused on the mother, although babies may also express upset at separation from their father at times too.
The reaction to you leaving may suddenly get worse after around nine months, as your child hits another stage in their mental development.
It’s a natural instinct for your baby to cling to and crave the closeness of the people who care for them. This is how the survive!
Separation anxiety can strike off and on throughout the first year and into your child’s toddler years.
In toddlers separation anxiety can be particularly upsetting for you as a parent because they will really tug at your heartstrings with their reaction to you leaving.
Seeing their arms outstretched and hearing them crying “mummy” can be really heartbreaking.
Separation anxiety in your toddler happens for the same reasons as it does in babies. There is also a natural suspicion of strange environments and new people which makes them particularly upset about leaving you.
You may notice your toddler develops separation anxiety, or becomes even more clingy, when large life events occur. This may be moving house or welcoming a newborn baby sibling.
Anything that makes them feel unsettled and unsure about their position in the family can trigger it.
Do you need to do anything about separation anxiety
If you are a full-time stay-at-home mama you may think that nothing needs to be done about separation anxiety.
However it is a good idea to get your baby or toddler used to being with other caregivers, because you never known when an unexpected event may take you away from your little one.
Laying the groundwork now for your child to be happy about being left with other people, will make it so much easier if you have a last-minute engagement.
How to stop separation anxiety
This phase is just that, a phase. However it is an important developmental milestone for your baby and your toddler.
It means you have a good relationship with your child, and that they are developing in a normal way. This type of emotional reaction to being separated from you is all part of their growing up and developing awareness and emotions.
However there are several things you can do to help improve your baby or toddler’s separation anxiety.
Leave your child for short bursts of time
Ease your baby or toddler into being away from you by practicing before leaving them for a long time.
Try short trips out of the house without your baby, leaving them in the care of someone they are already familiar with.
Try to make it normal for your baby or toddler that sometimes you won’t be around, but it’s OK because you will come back!
Get your child used to new caregivers
When leaving your child with someone or somewhere new, get them used to this environment first.
If you are starting your child at a nursery or childminder, a good childcare provider will offer settling in visits. These are an opportunity for you to help your child get used to the new place in short periods of time.
Get your child used to new places and faces by being there with them a couple of times before you leave them. When you do leave, make it a short trip so that your child hopefully doesn’t have enough time to miss you if they are distracted.
Find a comforter for your child to attach to
Encourage your little one to become attached to a comforter. This is something they can then take with them wherever they go and offers them a distraction and comfort when you are gone.
If your child seems to be drawn to a particular toy, it can be a good idea to buy two identical spares and rotate the toys on a weekly basis.
This means that if one gets lost, your baby will have back-ups. By rotating them regularly, they should all get the same level of wear and tear, plus smell familiar for your child.
Some kids will know the difference and have a preferred toy of course, so do be careful not to lose it!
When you are going to leave your child, don’t sneak off. Always say a happy and cheerful goodbye to them.
Trying to tiptoe out behind their back may work in the short-term, because you don’t have to see them cry.
But when they realise you have left without saying goodbye they may be more upset, as you haven’t told them you’re going or established when you are returning.
Say a proper goodbye and tell your child when you will be back.
When your child is in a new environment or with a new person, be positive about the place and that person.
Show you are friendly with their new caregiver.
When it comes to saying goodbye, be happy and smiley. Crying will indicate to your child that something may be wrong and they might panic.
Keep goodbyes relaxed and happy so that your child can take cues from you on how to behave when you are leaving.
Keep your word
Tell your child when you will be back and stick to your word.
This shows them they can trust you to return.
Leave your child with a family album
Pick out a few pictures of your child, their family, their home and pets. Put them together in a small family album.
You can buy a photo album, or you can mount the pictures on pieces of colourful card then punch holes in them and string the pictures together.
However you do it, this is a lovely thing to leave with your child and their caregiver. They can look through the pictures if they are feeling sad and talk about their loved ones.
Don’t drag out your departure
This is one of the number one biggest stresses for childminders and other childcare providers.
When a parent has trouble saying goodbye to a tearful and fraught child, it can be difficult to just leave.
But when a child has passed the point of no return with their tears, meaning they are so upset that calming them down would a long time or be impossible, then you need to just go.
This gives your caregivers the chance to take over and calm your child. If you are the one to calm your child down from their upset state, then they will just become upset all over again when you leave.
Make your goodbyes kind, positive, upbeat and happy. If your child is upset, give them one or two more cuddles and kisses, tell them it’s going to be OK and then just leave.
If you are really upset, call the caregiver after five minutes to see how your child is.
When my kids behaved in this way, they were often find after just a couple of minutes of me having left.
Help your child’s caregiver, or your relative who you are leaving them with, by telling them what your child likes to play with or what their favourite book is. This gives them an idea of how to distract your child and get rid of the tears.
I hope these tips have given you some good ideas for dealing with separation anxiety in your baby or toddler.
It is a very difficult phase, but once again rest assured it is normal.
Be patient with your child, and be kind to yourself. Try not to feel guilty when you do have to leave your little one. We all go through this phase, and while it’s difficult, leaving your child does not make you a bad parent!
Getting your child used to being independent and cared for by others is actually really good for them and is helping to get them ready for the day they finally start school.
There lots more toddler separation anxiety tips over at Me, Them and the Others.