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Separation Anxiety

What is separation anxiety?

Part of a baby's normal development is learning that separations from parents are not permanent. Young babies do not understand time, so they think a parent who walks out of the room is gone forever. Also, they have not yet developed the concept of object permanence—that a hidden object is still there, it just cannot be seen. Without these concepts, babies can become anxious and fearful when a parent leaves their sight. Separation anxiety is usually at its peak between 10 and 18 months. It typically ends by the time a child is 3 years old.

What are the signs of separation anxiety?

Babies experiencing separation anxiety fear that a parent will leave and not return. The fear may be worsened in the presence of a stranger. Typical responses of babies experiencing this normal phase of development may include the following:

  • Crying when you leave the room

  • Clinging or crying, especially in new situations

  • Awakening and crying at night after previously sleeping through the night

  • Refusal to go to sleep without parent nearby

How can you help your child with separation anxiety?

Children who feel secure are better able to handle separations. Cuddling and comforting your child when you are together can help him or her feel more secure. Other ways to help your child with separations include the following:

  • Comfort and reassure your child when he or she is afraid.

  • At home, help your baby learn independence by allowing him or her to crawl to other (safe) rooms for a short period of time alone.

  • Tell your baby if you are going to another room and that you will be back; then come back.

  • Plan your separations when your baby is rested and fed, rather than before a nap or meal.

  • Introduce new people and places gradually, allowing your baby time to get to know a new care provider.

  • Do not prolong good-byes and have the sitter distract your baby or child with a toy as you leave.

  • Introduce a transitional object such as a blanket or soft toy to help ease separations.

  • For night awakenings, comfort and reassure your child by patting and soothing, but avoid letting your child get out of bed.

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