Dealing with Your Child's Separation Anxiety

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By Audrey Morris

Separation anxiety is a normal part of a baby's development, and nearly all children will experience it to some degree during their toddler and pre-school years. Your baby will likely show symptoms of anxiety (crying, screaming, struggling, clinging, fear of others) when you leave him or her at daycare, with a babysitter, or even when you leave the room.

Separation anxiety typically peaks between 10 months and two years of age. At this age, babies are safe and comfortable in their home environment and with their parents. New places, new people, and unexpected changes can seem scary to them-even well-known places and people can suddenly be scary because baby realizes that mom (or dad) is leaving. Separation anxiety typically ends around age two, as toddlers begin to understand that you will return.

Common Causes of Separation Anxiety

  • Being left with a babysitter-even if the sitter is someone baby knows, he or she may suddenly become anxious, realizing that mom or dad is leaving

  • Bedtime, or when baby awakes in the night-baby may be scared to fall asleep alone or to wake up alone

  • Being dropped off at daycare-even if baby has been attending daycare for months, he or she may suddenly be afraid of your leaving

  • When mom or dad leaves the room-baby might not want to be left alone in a room in your own home

What a Parent Can Do about Separation Anxiety

Remember that this is a normal, healthy phase of baby's development. There is no treatment or cure-you simply have to wait it out! Be patient and understanding with your child.

There are some things you can do, however, to minimize the frustration for both parents and baby:

  • Stay calm and be reassuring

  • When you must leave, do not keep peeking back-let the caregiver comfort and distract baby

  • Use only babysitters baby already knows-grandma or grandpa, your regular weekly sitter, or a close friend. Try not to introduce new people into the mix, but if you must have someone new, invite them to meet and play with baby at an earlier date while you're there.

  • Consider taking baby along on errands, or keeping separations short, so baby can see that you do return

  • Stay in baby's room as he or she falls asleep-you do not need to be holding baby or talking, simply stay where baby can see you if needed.

Things to Avoid That May Trigger Anxiety

  • New caregivers baby has never met

  • Switching daycare providers unless necessary

  • Extended time away-the peak anxiety period is not the time for your first couple trip without the little one

  • Getting angry at baby, or crying with baby

Separation Anxiety in Older Children

Older toddlers and school-age children may also have bouts with separation anxiety, which is typically caused by stress. If their anxiety seems extreme (with physical symptoms such as headaches and stomach aches), or lasts for several weeks, a trip to the doctor may be in order to check for separation anxiety disorder.

Common childhood stressors for older children can include:

  • A new school environment (such as starting kindergarten)

  • Moving

  • A new baby or other change in family makeup or dynamics

  • Bullying or teasing at school or daycare

  • Sleeping away from home

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