7 Tips to Help Your Little One with Separation Anxiety

For parents, it's easy to have an overwhelming sense of guilt very quickly about anything. 

And, in the world where information is at your fingertips in a matter of seconds it's also very easy to start second guessing your instincts and feeling inadequate.  This is exactly how parents feel about their baby's sleep before sleep training.  I see this a lot in my line of work.

A large contributor to that is separation anxiety - that time in a child's life where they are inconsolable unless mom is there.  And, that's when parents start to second guess themselves - "My kid is screaming the house down because I'm not right there with him - what am I doing wrong?  Why is the neighbor's kid so content if her mom's going out shopping?  What am I doing wrong?!"

First of all, comparing yourself to other parents, or comparing your kid to other kids is a waste of time and energy.  It's the wrong kind of mindset and can start to become limiting.  You are totally rocking it right now!  Who cares about what Sarah wrote in that parents group about how her kid loves vegetables?  Especially with social media, things may not always seem as perfect as they look.

Secondly - separation anxiety is COMPLETELY normal.  

This feeling of anxiety when mommy is not there is actually a sign that your baby's understanding is maturing.  They are starting to grasp the idea that things continue to exist and be, even if they are not right there in front of you.  And as your baby starts to understand that, there are going to be times they're asking themselves "Okay, so mom's leaving now...she's out of the room...it's been a few minutes...Hey wait a second - the old girl might not be coming back!"

Cue: panic, tears, hysterics.

It's a time of learning.  If they lose it each and every time you leave the room, just keep in mind that: 1) Your baby's understanding a lot more, 2) This is totally normal, 3) The reason they're getting so upset is because your baby feels secure and attached to you.  Great work!  On the flip side, I think most parents would be even more concerned if their child seemed like they couldn't care less if parents were leaving.  Wouldn't you agree?

But, practically - this stinks.

Every time you leave your little one at daycare, with nana, with the sitter, etc. it becomes a really big ordeal and this can cause a lot of stress for parents.  So, what do you do?

1. Face it head on

Giving your baby the chance to learn this lesson about being apart and coming together again is very important, so don't avoid it.  Do you want your baby to be completely attached to your hip, every second of the day, every day until their 6 years old? Of course not.  Teach them that being upset is okay sometimes, and always reassure them that you are going to come back when you do.  

2. Assign an area where your baby is on their own, safely

Choose an area of the house where your little one can play and explore their environment safely, without needing you to be there.  If parents are constantly hovering and watching like a hawk, baby may have picked up that it's not safe for them to be by themselves.  So, start by picking one area where baby can be on their own a bit more.  Baby will start to associate that place with "me time".

3. Baby steps

When you're first leaving your baby with someone else besides you or your partner, start by making a brief outing (up to 1 hour).  Going out for several hours at a time is too steep a gradient initially.  That can happen a little further down the line.

Also, start by leaving them with someone that they know and spent some time with.  This will be much easier if they're hanging out with grand mom, an aunt or uncle, or family friend that they have seen before and know.

4. Make the transition gentle

Once the person whose watching your child arrives, hang out for a little while so that your baby feels comfortable around the "new person".  If mommy looks happy and is comfortable with this person, baby's going to feel a lot better about it.

5. Do not do the "Irish goodbye"

I admit - at big parties I am partial to the old "Irish goodbye" - quickly sneak away without bidding farewell.  Why it's Irish - I don't know.

For adults, this is okay.  But, don't attempt to distract your child and quickly sneak away.  That's no fair.  Take this opportunity to teach your child that you are leaving, but you are going to come back.  Be clear with this message.  This is much more reassuring than mommy performing a disappearing act.

6. Follow the same routine each time you leave

Having a predictable routine allows your child to know what is coming next.  There's no surprises.  So, before you leave the house give your child a set number of hugs/kisses, have a phrase that you say each time, and be clear with when you're coming back home. 

7. Speak to your child at a level they will understand

Chances are, your little one is not yet at a level where they understand clock time.  You can't say to your child - "I'll be back at 8:30", or "See you in an hour and a half".  Give your child a time that they understand.  Tell your child you'll be back at nap time, or when it's time for dinner, or you'll be back to put them to bed.  Your little one has a much better understanding of when that is during the day.

So, these are some very simple ways that you can start easing your child's anxiety when you are leaving for a time.  If you follow these, it DOES NOT mean that your child won't get upset.  But, if you follow these guidelines consistently it will definitely start to ease their stress until they've fully grasped the concept that you are coming back.  Be consistent, sympathetic, and calm and these tips will take you a long way.