A baby holding an adult's hand.

What is separation anxiety?

Let’s pretend Baby’s 9-month birthday is coming up, and you want to throw a par-TAY. You’ve hired a sitter for a few hours so that you can hit the stores and take care of some important birthday-Baby business before it’s time for cake and the Stage 3 baby food equivalent. But just as you’re preparing to head out the door, Baby begins to bawl. “That’s weird,” you think. “I’ve gone to the store before. Why the sudden tears?” Last minute meltdowns like these are quite common, and they tend to happen during an upsetting but often-inevitable stage of early childhood: separation anxiety.

Separation anxiety and your baby

Here’s the answer to common questions parents have when it seems like their baby has separation anxiety.

When does it happen? And why?

Many babies start to exhibit signs of separation anxiety around the time between 10 and 18 months. By this point, Baby will have begun to grasp the concept of object permanence – that is, the idea that something can still exist when it’s not present. So when you, his number one nurturer, are about to leave for work or some errands, the implication for Baby is clear: my protector is going away, and there’s no telling when they’ll be back. This realization can turn on the waterworks faster than cutting a raw onion.

How can I make separations easier for Baby?

Babies eventually grow out of separation anxiety, but in the meantime, the most effective and obvious step you can take is to minimizing the time when you’re apart as much as possible – for example, by taking Baby with you on errands when you can. If this isn’t an option, leaving him with a sitter Baby already knows and enjoys, like a friend or a family member, can put him in a calmer state of mind.

What if Baby’s anxiety gets worse?

Remember, Baby is developing at his own speed. It might take as little as a few weeks for him to kick separation anxiety, but it could take longer. If Baby seems to be growing more anxious about your leaving, consider how you leave. Drawing out each goodbye with a lingering bear hug and a slow Hollywood walk out the door will only emphasize your impending absence. Instead, try going with a quick kiss and a casual “Catch you later, snuggle bug.” Another way to soothe Baby’s nerves is to apply an interval training approach to separations. Start by leaving Baby with someone familiar for brief periods of time – say, 30 minutes – and then gradually work your way up to leaving him with a sitter for upwards of an hour.

The bottom line

Sooner or later, Baby will start to understand that you are, in fact, coming back and there is nothing to worry about. However, those first few weeks or months of separation anxiety can be tough for both parents and babies, so it’s important to stay strong.

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