Separation anxiety is such a common experience for babies that it is considered one of the normal developmental milestones. But that doesn’t make it any easier for parents to deal with though. Because although separation anxiety is common, nearly 80% of all babies will experience it at some stage, managing it can be quite a challenge.
Separation anxiety is not something usually seen in newborn babies. They tend to go happily to anyone and as long as their needs are being met, they are generally pretty content. But with time and maturity, most babies develop some degree of fear of strangers when they are between 7-9 months of age.
For some babies, this seems to happen almost overnight; one day they’re sociable and happy to share anyone’s space and the next, they just want to be with their parents – most commonly with mum. It is normal for babies to want to be close to their mother, especially if most of the care and feeding is being done by her.
Separation anxiety is exactly what it describes. When a baby is separated from their parent or caregiver, they become anxious and distressed. It is believed that separation anxiety emerges at the same time a baby learns to remember and recall familiar faces. Usually this is the mother, closely followed by the father or other engaged caregiver. Babies with older siblings who are involved in their care can also show separation anxiety when their sibling is not around.
Separation anxiety is a behaviour which has its roots deeply embedded in our biological past. Babies need to know who will care for them and if someone unfamiliar approaches them, they interpret this person as a potential threat. Crying, becoming distressed and alerting their parent to come and “rescue” them is the only way they know how to behave when they are feeling stressed. Of course, in the average daily life of a young baby, there are not as many threats to their wellbeing as they tend to think there are, which is why parents need to manage separation anxiety sensitively but also with a bit of rational common sense.
The classic age for separation anxiety to occur is between six and eight months and peaks between 14-18 months of age. By then, most babies have learnt without a shadow of a doubt who is best placed to meet their physical and emotional needs. Sometimes babies exhibit separation anxiety at a younger age. Babies who are particularly close to their parents, who may have been sick or experienced forced periods of separation sometimes exhibit separation anxiety at an earlier age.
The other cause for it comes down simply to physical size. Adults are just so much bigger and take up so much space compared with children. Being frightened of something large and noisy is just human nature and this sensation is only emphasised when you’re the size of a baby.
Crying, whimpering, scowling, frowning and generally appearing unhappy are classic signs. Your baby may become more clingy and if you’re carrying them, almost feel they are attached to you with “Velcro”.
By seven months most babies are sitting and practicing the skills needed to learn how to crawl. You may find that when your baby is on the floor playing happily and a stranger comes into their view, your baby crawls quickly towards you. Or, they may just sit and cry or become very quiet and withdrawn. They may even look away and refuse to establish eye contact with you or anyone else.
Babies who are experiencing separation anxiety will often wake at night. Even if they have been sleeping through the night for a couple of months they may start to wake again overnight – not so much to feed but to be reminded that you are still close. This is extremely normal. From a biological perspective, night time used to pose the greatest risk to our survival. When we were asleep and it was dark, predators were more prevalent. Which may be the reason why babies still need their parents close by at night to help them calm and relax enough to be able to “switch off” and go back to sleep.
Some babies become deeply distressed and it takes quite a while to help them calm. Reassuring a baby with separation anxiety is often not alleviated by a “quick fix”.
Many community health centres and health professionals offer COS courses for parents. These can be useful to learn about normal separation anxiety and attachment but also to help build relationships. The COS is an intervention programme developed by a team of US psychologists who work with families. It is essentially a way of seeing the world from a baby’s point of view.
Babies are hardwired to stay close to their parents and venture out to explore the world – we know this is normal and something which they all need to do. When babies or children feel insecure or unsure, they need to come back to top up their emotional security. Parents are seen as the “secure base” and need to show delight in their baby.
Parents also need to support their baby’s exploration and to always be bigger, wiser, stronger and kind.
The first thing to do is remember that separation anxiety is very normal. You can’t do anything to “fix it” because essentially, nothing is broken! One of the good things about separation anxiety is that it is seen by health care professionals who work with children as a mark of quality assurance.
Babies who love their parents and who are emotionally engaged with them do show separation anxiety. They have learned that their parents will provide them with what they need to grow and thrive. To a baby’s way of thinking, there is no one else but their parents in their world and more importantly, there is no need for anyone else either; which is why they become so upset when a stranger comes near them. This is why babies with separation anxiety react as they do and in the only way they know how.
When you need to move out of your baby’s sight such as when you go into another room, call out to your baby, sing to them and just reassure them with your voice that you’ve not gone far. Although this may not entirely stop them from crying, they aren’t as likely to get quite as upset.