It totally breaks your heart to leave your baby crying with someone else as you hurriedly walk away.The emotion is unbearable. You see their little face with tears and hear them screaming for you. Moments before, you have extracted yourself from their clinging hands which were wrapped around your leg and leave as quickly as possible, as this, you have been told is best. As difficult as it is, as you leave you wonder if it the right thing leaving? Is what you have to do really that important? What if they don’t stop? Am I a bad parent for leaving? What else should I do to help them?
This is separation anxiety. Most children experience separation anxiety at some stage, it is more common between 9-12 months of age, until about two years of age. In my experience with parents and children, separation anxiety seems to come and go in stages over that time and often can even exist up until 7-8 years of age. For some children it is quick and over, for others it can be intense and persist for months, and months. There can be good days and bad days, good weeks and bad weeks.
Knowing how to help your baby means understanding the reason for separation anxiety. It all starts with love. Love for you. You have spent the first months of your baby’s life, creating a strong bond. All those gorgeous smiles, giggles, cuddles have created a deep and loving relationship, it is this deep love and you being around that becomes just a normal part of their day and makes them feel safe.
What happens when that safe much loved mummy walks away? You are leaving them with someone they don’t know as well and your baby becomes uneasy and desperately tries to hold onto you. The screaming and tears that follow are quite common at any daycare, birthday party or family home.
Try and take some reassurance that it is a sign of your child’s love and trust in you and try not to fear and dread the scene. Your child believes you are the best and safest person in the world! Instinctually your child needs to keep you within sight to feel safe until they have had numerous experiences of parting with mummy or daddy and find themselves safe. Actually it is part of your child’s emotional growth.
What your child doesn’t yet understand is that even though they are not with the best person in the world, you will come back, they will be safe and that other adults are actually okay!
How can you help your baby/toddler through this stage? Life certainly becomes easier and much more fun when your baby moves through this stage and you can certainly help them too. At the most basic level your baby needs to learn to accept and deal with separation.
Try some of the following ideas: Play Peek A Boo with objects – this teaches that things exist, even when they can’t see them, and that they come back. So hide toys under sheets, behind furniture and even behind your back at playtime. Let your baby have a turn as well. Slowly extend this game to include people. Then move it to real life - Try going into the shop to get milk, go out the door and back in. Be sure to always be cheerful and happy as you say goodbye and the same when you pop back up/in. Add in the hand gestures of ‘hello’ and ‘goodbye’.
Duck around the corner, or behind the furniture, or out the back door. Play this often, every day and stay hidden for longer each day. Give your baby time to play alone in their cot, or on the floor with a toy while you move away. You can whistle, hum, talk to them as you move out of sight to let your baby know that you are still there. Try not to respond directly to the crying and screaming, but just discreetly move back into sight so they feel more secure. Keep practicing.
When leaving place your Baby on the Floor – often with babies and children we carry them and then hand them over to another adult – this is probably the worse scenario for an anxious child as they are going from you, the best and safest person in the world to someone else – they will protest! Loudly! Instead go for a floor transfer, put them down, get them busy, or put them in a swing, high chair etc. Distract them with a toy or puzzle. Stay to introduce them to it and get them busy. Then get the other adult to sit near them, push them and talk to them as you say a quick goodbye.
Always say Goodbye! Tempting as it is to sneak off, it will only teach your baby to worry that you may disappear without warning. So don’t avoid, say a cheerful, quick goodbye and leave. Avoid the mad dash out the door, just follow a simple routine and be firm when you say goodbye and leave. 10 – 15 minutes is a good amount of time.
Once you say Goodbye be sure to go! Don’t come back because you’ve forgotten your keys, don’t have a chat at the front door and delay the parting, you will notice that your baby then becomes more and more anxious. The anxiety builds.
For older children, talk to them about where you are going and what is going to happen. Telling them a short while before hand, helps them to cope more successfully. Get them to select certain toys or books to read with the sitter when they arrive.
One of my most favourite strategies is for your baby/toddler to have a cuddle toy or blanket that they can take with them or cuddle with as needed. Children can develop very strong emotional ties to toys and this helps them feel secure and safe despite mummy being absent. Just try to have two or three toys to rotate.
For older children, try the magic bracelet, this works brilliantly. Find a silicon bracelet from a recent charity day and get mummy to wear it for a few days, then make a big presentation to your child. Mummy is giving them her bracelet to wear, so that at daycare or kindy when they are feeling sad or missing mummy all they need to do is to touch, rub the bracelet and they have part of mummy with them. This is comforter and can also be used at bedtime, as well a variety of other times ie. School camp, parties, business trips. How you introduce the magic bracelet and explain it to your child is key to it working.
Some children become more anxious at night time, keep to a specific bedtime routine, make sure there is ample wind down time. Have a plan of how to deal with night time waking, give them strategies to do ie. Cuddle their toy and go back to sleep, put on their music etc. There are many, many strategies to use to help children of all ages deal with separation anxiety. Remember it is a developmental phase and should pass in time but if you are struggling or need some direction on what strategies to use speak to a psychologist who specialises in babies/children and anxiety.