As a parent, it's horrible when your child is crying and you’re not sure why – especially when he’s a baby and unable to communicate what's upsetting him.
Before you start blaming yourself, get clued up on the signs of separation anxiety to see if this common development milestone could be the issue – it’s something that all babies experience to different degrees.
While it’s not great fun for you or your tot (brace yourself for lots of tears and interrupted sleep) it’s actually a really positive indication of how close you are.
And it won’t last forever. Most babies go through a short phase of it and your little one will no doubt be back to his usual adorable self in no time.
Why Separation Anxiety Happens
Separation anxiety is as simple as it sounds – your baby is literally nervous whenever you’re not around. It happens when he starts to engage more with his surroundings.
“When babies are first born their brains are very immature,” says Sarah Ockwell-Smith, author of BabyCalm. “They initially believe that they and you are one being, they do not realise that you are a separate person.”
As your baby gets older, he’ll begin to realise that you and he are not just two different people, but that you can leave him. He’ll feel abandoned even if you’ve simply nipped to the loo.
“Although his brain becomes mature enough to realise that you can leave him, he doesn’t yet understand that you’ll come back,” says Sarah. “Nor does he understand the concept of time – so two minutes without you may as well be two hours, it feels no different to him.”
This sounds horrible for him, but it’s actually a really good sign. “It indicates that your baby has developed a strong attachment with you which is shows that you've done a great job as a mother,” says Sarah.
“It signals that your baby’s developing well psychologically, and actually an indicator of him being confident and independent when he gets older.”
When Separation Anxiety Happens
Normally, separation anxiety occurs from around nine to 10 months old. However it can be sooner.
“It affects some babies from when they’re around seven months old through to 18 months and beyond,” Sarah explains.
The Signs Of Separation Anxiety
There are four really common signals of separation anxiety to pick up on.
1. Your baby might start crying as soon as you put him down.
2. He may get really upset whenever you leave the room.
3. He may start waking more during the night.
4. Your baby might become upset being left with people who he was previously happy to go to, such as grandparents and the babysitter.
Ways To Cope With Separation Anxiety
Know that separation anxiety is a perfectly normal, and healthy, stage of your baby’s development.
“While it's taxing to deal with, understand that it's a sign of what a good job you’ve done as a parent to date,” says Sarah. Put yourself in your baby’s shoes and imagine how scary it must be for him to deal with.
“Independance is not something that can be taught,” says Sarah. “It’s a developmental stage, so respond to your baby’s cues.”
Give him plenty of kisses and cuddles and reassure him as much as necessary. In time, he'll learn that you will go away – but that you’ll always come back, too.
It's best to not to leave him when he’s tired, hungry or restless if possible. If you do pop out, don’t sneak out without saying goodbye.
It’s a good idea for your baby to be around other people, too – both with and without you. This will be especially crucial if you’re about to finish your maternity leave and your baby’s starting nursery. Take him for some short visits before he starts full time for him to get used to the new surroundings and people with you there.
Sarah advises that you don’t try any sleep training during this development period. “You could make things a lot worse and create a nervous, unconfident toddler if you do,” she says.
Help And Support
There are some brilliant advice helpline services available, including the NCT (0300 330 0770) and Anxiety UK (0844 477 5774).
But one of the best places to get the support you need is from other parents with children of similar ages. “Realising you’re not alone is very helpful,” says Sarah. “This could be at mother and baby groups in real life or Internet discussion forums.”
Remember, as stressful and exhausting as separation anxiety is, it is just a phase and it your baby will grow out of it. Ignore mum friends who tell you that their baby got over it overnight – all babies develop at their own rate and your little one will get there.
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Has your baby had separation anxiety? Let us know in the comments box below.