Most babies and young children will go through a stage in which they are very clingy. They get upset, cry and throw tantrums when you try to leave them with a babysitter. While this stage can be quite unsettling, separation anxiety is a perfectly normal developmental stage. Understanding why this happens will help you to manage this challenging phase.
What is Separation Anxiety?
Separation anxiety is when your baby feels distressed when you leave the room. They become anxious and express their feelings by crying when you are out of their sight. Your baby may get even more upset if there is a strange person around.
While it may be our first instinct as parents to do something to stop their distress, separation anxiety is actually a normal developmental stage. Your baby has developed a healthy attachment with you and wants you around. Read on to find out how you can help your baby through this stage.
How do I know if my baby has separation anxiety?
A baby with separation anxiety will usually cry when you leave the room. Your baby will most likely try to cling to you when in new situations. This is because you represent safety and familiarity. Other symptoms that may show include your baby refusing to go to sleep without you nearby and waking up in the middle of the night when they have previously been sleeping through.
How long does separation anxiety last?
It usually starts around 8 to 9 months, with some babies developing it when they are as young as 4 to 5 months.
At what age does separation anxiety peak?
Separation anxiety usually peaks around 14 to 18 months. At this age, your child is much more aware of his surroundings and is learning to be independent. Many children will start to settle by 2, and by 3 years old, most children would have passed this stage.
Why does separation anxiety happen?
Separation anxiety starts when the baby develops ‘object permanence’. They realize that things and people continue to exist even when they can’t be seen. However, they do not understand the concept of time, and thus, do not know when mom or dad will be back. Most babies develop this around 8 to 9 months, but some babies do gain this understanding when they are as young as 4 months.
Parents and primary caregivers also represent familiarity and safety and thus, babies and toddlers might feel distressed when they are not around. Separations are even more challenging when the child is tired, hungry or not feeling well.
Rest assured, it is a normal developmental stage that most young children go through. However, if your child is already older and seems to have separation anxiety that is getting worse, he may be suffering from a separation anxiety disorder.
Separation Anxiety Disorder
Contrary to the normal term, separation anxiety disorder is a more serious anxiety problem. A child with this disorder experiences extreme distress when she is apart from her parents or caregiver. No matter what you do, it is very difficult to calm the child down.
While both share similar symptoms, children who suffer from separation anxiety disorder suffer from fears that are so intense that it interferes with daily activities. For example, children with this disorder may become distressed just with the thought of going to school. This extreme distress may cause the child to actually feel physically unwell.
Separation anxiety disorder causes
It can be caused by biological factors or environmental factors, or a combination of both. A child who has a family member suffering from anxiety has a higher chance of having an anxiety disorder. A stressful or traumatic event can also trigger anxiety in a child.
Separation anxiety disorder symptoms
Children who have a separation anxiety disorder may have the following symptoms:
- Being worried and afraid that something bad will happen to a loved one.
- Worry that something will happen and that this will lead to permanent separation.
- Refuse to go to sleep / have trouble sleeping.
- Physical symptoms such as stomachaches and headaches before and during the separation.
- Refuse to go to school.
- Refuse to leave the house.
- Fearful of being alone, even at home when others are around.
- Age inappropriate clinginess to parents or caregivers, even when at home.
- Meltdowns when separated from parents or caregivers.
How to reduce separation anxiety in babies?
You may feel totally anxious and guilty when you have to leave your crying baby in someone else’s care.
However, leaving your baby with a caregiver will actually help them to learn to manage themselves without you. It is the first step for them to grow in their independence. So instead of feeling guilty and worrying about them, here are a few things you can do to help you baby feel more secure:
1. Practice short separation
To get your baby used to being away from you, you can start with short separations. For example, you could leave your baby with someone they know when you have to run some errands. This will help your baby to be more comfortable when you are not by their side. Gradually increase the time away from your child.
2. Leave a comfort item with your baby
Some babies have a particular comfort item that they are attached to. Allow your baby to have a familiar item, such as a favourite soft toy, with them to reassure them when you are away.
3. Don’t draw out your goodbye
Keep goodbyes short and sweet. The longer you draw out your goodbye, the longer the anxiety will linger. When you leave your baby, be happy and confident even if you are sad. Your baby will be able to pick up what you are feeling and will follow your cues.
4. Talk about what you will be doing later
Talk to your child about what you will do with him when you return. Define time in a way that your child understands. For example, you could say “Mummy will pick you up after nap time and we will go to the shops to get dinner” rather than “We will go get dinner after I pick you up at 3pm.”
5. Keep your promises
The best way to build your child’s trust and confidence in your coming back is to do your best to keep your promises.
6. Timing is important
Since separation usually appears around 8 months, try to start childcare before your child hits this period. Give your child time to get used to carers to avoid unwanted distress. Your child will also be more likely to be extra clingy when they are hungry or tired.
Separation Anxiety Disorder Treatment
While most children will learn that their parents will return and that they will be ok even when their parents are not around, some children may need professional intervention. Be aware of the symptoms mentioned above and its frequency and do not hesitate to get help for your child.
Here are some of the treatments that might be recommended for your child:
- Cognitive behaviour therapy: CBT helps your child to overcome anxiety by changing thought and behavioural patterns. This treatment is one that is very effective in dealing with anxiety disorders.
- Family therapy: As the name suggests, this therapy is not just for the child but also involves parents. Family counselling is a treatment that will help your child counter anxious thoughts while teaching parents how they can help their child manage the anxiety.
- Talk therapy: Talk therapy encourages your child to express his feelings in a safe environment. This therapy aims to help your child understand what is happening when they feel anxious, and how to manage their anxiety. Talk therapy is better suited for older children.
- Play therapy: This treatment uses play to let your child communicate his or her feelings. Play therapy is a treatment that is suitable for young children.
- School-based counselling: As children spend a lot of time in school, it makes sense to have the school’s input for their condition. Additionally, there is extra care from school if your child experiences an anxiety attack in school.
- Medication: Medication such as Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitors (SSRIs) will help balance brain chemicals that play a role in regulating emotions. If your child’s anxiety is acute, the doctor might prescribe Benzodiazepines.
For more information, read out article on “Anxiety treatment for children”
Separation anxiety can be quite stressful for both parent and child. However, as it is a normal developmental stage, you do not have to worry too much about it. Be consistent with your baby and help her to manage her emotions. This phase will pass and you will soon start to miss the times when your child didn’t want to leave your side.