Separation anxiety usually begins around 9 months of age and can last until around 3 years of age. Some babies will experience it earlier, and some won’t experience much of it at all. Normal development includes a wide range of behavior. It begins when a child’s understanding of object permanence develops: they understand that people and objects exist even when they are out of sight. As challenging as it is, it is a sign of secure attachment. But no need to worry if your child doesn’t show signs of separation anxiety!
What Separation Anxiety Looks Like
A baby or toddler may initially hide their face or cling to you when meeting or interacting with new or even familiar people. Sometimes they show a strong preference for one parent over another. The worst is when they cling to you and scream when you need to leave. Sometimes after a successful transition in the morning, they will experience some separation anxiety after waking up from a nap without your presence.
Ways to Prepare
- Plan transitions for a time when they won’t likely be tired or hungry, and when they’ll be ready to engage and enjoy playing with another person.
- Come up with a short, upbeat goodbye ritual. Something like a hug, a kiss, and a fist bump. Practice it with their stuffed animals for them to see. Explain what you’re doing, for example, “I’m going to give Bunny a kiss and a fist bump and say bye, and then I’m going to give him to you. Watch me!” This works especially well with toddlers. It may feel silly to role play with a pre-verbal child. However, they are constantly observing, enjoy repetition, and will begin to imitate which will ease separation anxiety.
- Pack one or two favorite toys that will help your child self-soothe
- During the week leading up to your child’s first day with a nanny or in childcare, make a point of giving them space to play independently, without offering any feedback for a few minutes at a time. Be sure to put them in a safe place on the floor or playpen where they can’t get into anything dangerous.
- With infants, practice passing them back and forth to friends or family members just for fun.
- With older infants and toddlers, make a point of mentioning their new caregiver by name a few days before they start. “Miss Sarah has lots of baby dolls to play with in your new classroom,” or “Grandma’s favorite color is red”
When it’s Time to Say Goodbye
- Do not sneak out if you think your child is distracted; this can make separation anxiety worse. They may feel like you’re unpredictable, and they will likely be more clingy the next time. If your child is distracted, just clearly and cheerfully say goodbye. Don’t necessarily expect a response from them. They may get upset when they hear you say goodbye, but after the new caregiver has already connected with them and engaged with them, they will be able to do it again even more easily.
- Do not respond to their cries or clinging by staying longer. They need to be comforted and engaged by the new caregiver. Staying longer prevents them from engaging with the new person and prolongs the process. Even if you have to peel them off of your leg screaming, say a warm, confident, cheerful goodbye.
- A toddler will find it helpful to know when you’re coming back, “After snack” or, “When you’re on the playground the second time” are more meaningful to them than, “At three o’clock.”
- Exude confidence in their presence! It’s totally normal to cry too; try to hold it in until you are out of sight!
Are you looking for a childcare provider? Boston Baby Nurse & Nanny has a large pool of professional nannies to match your family with. We offer them free online nanny trainings to encourage continued professional development so they can assist you in scenarios such as, separation anxiety and more!
Source: American Academy of Pediatrics online publication, How to Ease Your Child’s Separation Anxiety by Wendy Sue Swanson MD
About The Author
Claire Sherba is a nanny recruitment specialist. She finds and interviews highly qualified nanny candidates for Boston Baby Nurse & Nanny. Claire has worked with young children and their families for nearly two decades, both as a private nanny and as a classroom teacher. She studied early childhood education at City College of San Francisco, and holds an MFA in writing and literature from Bennington College. In her spare time, she enjoys traveling with her family, reading, cooking & photography.