At some point during their development, all babies will experience separation anxiety. This is very common and completely normal, however, it can be difficult for parents to cope with a baby who gets panicky and upset when they’re not around. The good news is, for the vast majority of babies, separation anxiety happens in phases and won’t last forever.
It often starts at around eight months and usually subsides as your baby nears one year old or a few months after. However, it may come back sometime around two years, once your baby becomes aware of their own independence.
One afternoon you’re playing with your eight month old baby on the floor who’s just started to shuffle around on her bottom and you need to nip to the loo. A pretty normal occurrence and one that your baby hasn’t reacted to particularly strongly before. But today, the second you leave the room, your baby starts crying and screaming, and will only be consoled by you holding and comforting her.
This is an example of separation anxiety, which a baby experiences when separated from the main person who looks after them, usually mum. Rather than this being a sign that something is wrong, separation anxiety is in fact (noisy!) proof of just how strong the bond between you and your baby is.
From around the age of six months, your baby will start to engage more actively with the world around them. During this time they will also learn how to differentiate, or recognise faces - mostly those of the people who look after them - and they will feel comfortable with familiar people and environments.
However, while they might have been happy being held or comforted by people other than yourself or your partner before, this now might lead to them screaming with panic. This is a natural reaction because even if they recognise the person holding them - what they don’t know and what upsets them – is not knowing when, or if, you will return.
Your baby will learn – through the responsiveness of those close to them – to recognise when there really is something to be upset about and the patterns of your comings and goings in their day and life. However, this is not something babies learn overnight.
The best way to deal with separation anxiety is to give your baby reassurance - over and over again - that your absence doesn't mean that you have gone away forever.
Even if your baby's distress is upsetting you, it's not necessary to give up plans to go out or return to work. It's part of her emotional growth to learn that others can care for her as well, and she can trust you to come back soon.
Some babies are comforted by the presence of a soft toy or blanket which they associate with you or your partner perhaps. But patience, understanding and calm reassurance are the main responses you can use to handle separation anxiety. Other common strategies include:
- Timing: Try not to leave when your baby is likely to be tired, hungry or restless. If possible, schedule your departures for after naps and mealtimes.
- Practice: Leave your child with a relative or friend for brief periods initially. If you’re planning to leave your baby with a relative or babysitter invite that person over in advance so they can meet them beforehand.
- Consistency: Have a regular group of people who look after your baby and interact with them.
- Familiarity: Keep surroundings as familiar as possible and make new surroundings more familiar. If your baby is starting a new nursery make a few short visits there before a full-time schedule begins.
- Ritual: create a goodbye ritual during which you say a calm, loving and firm goodbye. Don’t sneak away when she is not looking. Reassure her that you’ll be back. When you leave mean it, as returning will make things worse.
- Follow through: Make sure you return when you promised and your child will develop the confidence that she can make it through the time apart.
The best way to deal with separation anxiety is give your baby reassurance – over and over again – that your absence doesn’t mean that you have gone away forever.
NCT's helpline offers practical and emotional support in all areas of pregnancy, birth and early parenthood: 0300 330 0700.
You might find attending one of NCT's Early Days groups helpful as they give you the opportunity to explore different approaches to important parenting issues with a qualified group leader and other new parents in your area.
Make friends with other parents-to-be and new parents in your local area for support and friendship by seeing what NCT activities are happening nearby.
Overview from Anxiety Care of separation anxiety in babies and older children.