Crying when you leave for the bathroom, tantrums when you head for the front door, misery even at being left alone with a babysitter they have loved in the past – it’s hard not to be alarmed when Baby starts to show symptoms of separation anxiety, especially since it can come straight out of nowhere sometime when they are between 7 and 18 months old.
Like with a lot of developmental milestones, there is a huge range of ‘normal’ timeframes for separation anxiety. So whether Baby starts getting nervous to leave you next week, or it doesn’t hit for another 6 months, it’s still as normal as Baby throwing toys out of their crib or learning to crawl. And like both of those things, it’s also a sign that they are learning something new. In this case, it’s the concept of object permanence, the idea that objects still exist even when they’re not in Baby’s sight, and that things can leave and can come back. More than that, it’s a sign of how happy and secure they feel when they are with you.
Still, normal or not, it’s no fun (and can be hard on parents emotionally as well as practically) to have Baby get so upset every time you need to leave the room or the house without them. Luckily, there are a few ways to work on helping Baby get past this particular phase, although you may be due for another round of it in another year or two.
Equal, opposite reaction
Part of the problem you and Baby are facing is that they have learned that things leave, but isn’t as clear on the fact that they can come back. You can practice the idea of things disappearing and then reappearing with Baby by playing games like peek-a-boo, or hiding toys or objects a little, then encouraging them to find them. Then, you can try practicing with yourself. If you tell Baby where you’re going (the kitchen, say) and for how long (two minutes), and then you go ahead and do exactly what you told them you were going to, even if Baby doesn’t understand what you mean right away, it starts to build the trust that when you leave, you’ll come back.
Let’s do the time warp again
It can also help to have a goodbye routine that doesn’t vary, so that when Baby starts to learn that you’ll come back when you say goodbye, the ‘goodbye’ is distinctive enough to attach to that anxiety as soon as it starts. Drawing out goodbyes can make Baby anxious, and coming back after you leave initially, but before you’re really coming home, can just confuse them. On the other hand, sneaking out when Baby isn’t paying attention will just leave them with a constant, low-level worry that you could disappear any time, which isn’t the way to move past the separation anxiety phase any faster.
In some cases, what initially seems to be the separation anxiety that is a natural part of Baby’s growth could develop into the more severe separation anxiety disorder, which could need treatment. If separation anxiety symptoms intensify or last as Baby makes their way out of toddlerhood, don’t hesitate to check with the doctor, or another expert.