Your question: Why does my baby have separation anxiety?

My reply:

Hi, I hope this message finds you well. My name is Cesar Guedez, a psychologist trained in cognitive behavioral therapy. 

Many parents worry when their baby cries inconsolably when separated from them. This has a name, and it is one of the most common childhood problems. Separation anxiety is an infant’s extreme and exaggerated fear of separation from a parent or caregiver, however brief.

When your child is left in the care of a babysitter, goes to daycare or school, they manifest intense crying, temper tantrums and general emotional uncontrol. Separation anxiety is quite common (1) and can be addressed through parenting strategies and techniques for both children and parents. It usually occurs from 5-6 months of age and tends to gradually decrease when the child turns two years old.

Generally, separation anxiety is a problem that decreases with the age of the child. It is not something that you as a parent have caused, nor is it your baby’s fault for acting this way. You should avoid making the mistake of scolding or reprimanding your child for feeling anxious about being separated from you, and also avoid blaming yourself because this does not represent you as a parent.

Separation anxiety happens all the time, and there are ways to lessen it to prevent it from becoming a long-term problem. Some children never outgrow separation anxiety and have trouble achieving independence as they grow up.

Separation anxiety is also related to stranger anxiety. Babies commonly cry when someone other than their primary caregiver holds them. This can be uncomfortable and frustrating, since as a parent you probably want your friends and family to spend time with your child.

However, rather than a rejection of your friends or family, your baby’s crying when you leave him in the care of a stranger is a response to your absence. It does not mean that your baby rejects or dislikes other people, but that he just wants your attention.

Babies learn very quickly as their brains are in a stage of receiving information and bonding. By implementing the techniques I will introduce you to in this blog, I am sure you will decrease your baby’s separation anxiety and feel freer and more confident as a parent eventually.

What are the symptoms of separation anxiety?

These symptoms can occur at any time of the day, but tend to be aggravated at night, when the baby refuses to be left alone to sleep. Some characteristic signs of separation anxiety in infants and toddlers are:

  • Uncontrolled crying when held by someone other than their caregivers.
  • Refusing to go to sleep unless their parents are with them.
  • Uncontrolled crying when in the presence of or left in the care of someone other than a parent.
  • Waking up crying in the middle of the night if they feel alone.
  • Crying and distress when away from home.
  • Intense fear that something will happen to their parents.
  • Recurrent nightmares about separation.
  • Physical symptoms such as headache, stomach ache and fever that appear only when separated from parents.

Why does your baby feel separation anxiety?

Many parents worry excessively about their children’s separation anxiety. The truth is that this is a natural and evolutionary behavior, which only represents a problem if it is persistent and intense over time, generating difficulties for your child to acquire small achievements of independence such as sleeping alone or going to daycare. Some elements that influence the separation anxiety of children are:

Parental anxiety

Research (2) found that children’s separation anxiety has a high degree of correlation with their parents’ feelings of anxiety when they are separated. If you as a parent experience intense anxiety when you are away from your baby for short periods of time, your child’s separation anxiety is likely to be exacerbated.

Life stressors and adjustment periods

Parents are role models for their children, consciously and unconsciously. Whether you want them to or not, your children sense everything about you, and they can tell when you are anxious about work, school or personal problems. Parental stress from everyday problems can aggravate separation anxiety, as well as periods of adjustment in the family: a move or a divorce, for example.

What can you do to help your baby and yourself?

Dealing with your child’s separation anxiety is a two-way street. On the one hand, you must regulate the uncontrolled emotions of your child, who is developing an overdependence on you, manifested through tantrums, and on the other hand, you must look at your own anxiety and concerns about parenting.

It is essential that you understand that it is not your fault that your child has separation anxiety, that this is in no way something you “gave” to him/her. However, you do have the power to make changes in your life and your child’s life by reflecting on your role as a parent, applying specific strategies and seeking help from a psychologist or pediatrician when you feel the problem is getting out of control.

Separation practices

In the comfort of your home, you can practice separation with your baby by leaving him or her alone in the crib for short periods of time while you leave the room. This will allow you to observe how long your child can spend alone before he starts crying.

Gradually, you can extend the length of time for these separation practices. It is important that you stick to the time you set. Reward your child for progress. For example, if he/she remained silent without crying for 30 minutes alone.

Breathing Exercises

The stress of your life as a parent can be exhausting, and your child can certainly feel it. A quick strategy to lessen your anxiety is slow breathing. Close your eyes, inhale through your nose for 4 seconds, exhale through your mouth for 4 seconds. Rest one hand on your chest and one on your abdomen and feel the tension caused by anxiety slowly diminish. This exercise, applied for 5 to 15 minutes a day, will be very useful to reduce the anxiety inherent to parenthood.

Look for distracting toys

Crib mobiles are much more than just a cute decoration. They can also serve as a distraction and companion for your baby.

Short goodbyes

Many parents spend long periods of time saying goodbye to their children when they are on their way to work or running errands on the street. This is a mistake, as your baby associates parental goodbyes with an overly dramatic and sensitive moment, making it difficult for him to separate from his parents in the future. The best thing to do is a simple kiss, say “see you soon,” and get out the door as soon as possible.

Ask for help from your partner or family members

They say “it takes a village to raise a child” for a reason. Raising children is a collective responsibility, as no one can do it on their own. You need to be in tune with your partner, or family members who support you in raising your child, to work through separation anxiety. Whether it is your partner, a family member or a nanny, whoever helps you in this process should be emotionally supportive to comfort the child when you are away, and facilitate your child’s gradual independence.

In my experience…

It is completely normal for your baby to feel separation anxiety. Even if your child’s disconsolate crying calls you to rescue him or her, you must remember that these techniques will only work if you are committed to doing so. Modifying your attachment bonds with your children is no easy task, but it is possible, even more so when you make up your mind that it is for the good of both of you.

Babies are exposed to many changes, but they are also willing to learn and receive useful information. You can complement these strategies with professional help from a child psychologist or pediatrician. You got this! Being a parent is hard work, but the gratification of watching your child grow and feel secure is priceless. Remember that all this effort is for yourself and your child

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