What is “separation anxiety;” that dreaded stage every infant goes through? Is it necessary for every child to pass through this phase? And what can a parent do to make it easier on all concerned?
Separation anxiety is a developmental phase infants go through in which they display distress when not in the presence on their main caregiver, let’s say, their mother. This period is often most pronounced from ten to eighteen months. By the end of the second year the child’s separation anxiety usually begins to fade.
A mother may first notice her child becoming more needy as the child reaches out and holds on to the mother more than in the past. When you are out of sight, your child will know you are somewhere nearby, however, your not being with the child will result in her great distress.
Experts believe infants enter this period of separation anxiety for reasons including infants not having a sense of time. The infant cannot differentiate whether a mother is gone for one minute or an hour or a day; all the infant knows is that her mother is not with her. Later on, often after eighteen to twenty four months, the infant is able to soothe herself with memories of being with her mother and the knowledge that her mother will return.
This is not an easy time for a parent. There are many wonderful moments as your child hugs you and needs you in ways you may never experience again. At other times, the child’s unquenchable needs may be suffocating. Also, it is difficult for a parent not to feel guilty as she listens to the heartbreaking screaming of her child being left with a babysitter or in daycare.
Suggestions to ease some of the discomfort for baby and parents during this period include preparing for your separations from your child. It has been observed that separation anxiety is more intense with a child who is hungry, tired or ill. So when you are scheduling your day, try to leave your child after she has napped and been fed. And if your child is ill, try and stay with her as much as possible.
Also, a parent’s response to a child’s separation anxiety can have much to do with when it will eventually subside. When you are leaving, hug and kiss your child as you say goodbye and then leave.
Since your child’s tears are meant to persuade you to stay, once you are out of sight your child will, instead, turn for attention to her caregiver. Some parents have been successful in having a child quickly overcome her screaming by having a babysitter distract her with a new toy, playing in front of a mirror, or taking a bath.
Experts also note that children will learn to cope with separation more quickly if parents practice separating with them. For instance, your infant will begin experimenting with separating when she crawls away from you and into a different room. As difficult as it is, try and wait a few minutes before following her, as opposed to jumping up and letting her see you immediately. (Of course, your child must only go into rooms by herself which have been child proofed.)
Also, when you need to go into another room without her, tell her where you are going and that you will return shortly. Slowly, your child will learn that not only does nothing terrible happen to her without you, but you will return.
Be advised, though you probably have learned, that infants are smart. They watch how you respond to them and, if you drop everything and run to them each time they cry for you, you will help establish a behavioral pattern which will be difficult for the entire family to live with.
On the other hand, it is recommended that if possible you do spend a few extra minutes with your child if she is dropped off at a sitter’s home or day care center. Make sure you reassure the child you will return later.
In fact, the ideal situation might be to very slowly introduce a new babysitter or daycare environment to your toddler. Let your child become familiar and comfortable over the course of say, a few weeks, with their new caregiver before leaving for several hours or the entire day. This may allow the child to more easily make the transition from having you with her to a caregiver.
No one would suggest that the period of separation anxiety is an easy time for parents. However, experts urge parents to remember that your child’s unwillingness to leave you is actually a sign that a healthy relationship has developed between the two of you and, developmentally, your child is progressing just fine.
So try to discover your own coping mechanisms during this trying period and keep in mind that separation anxiety is normal, healthy and, mercifully, will pass.