Separation Anxiety

Separation protests refer to a baby’s cries when the parent leaves.  All infants will have some level of separation protests.  That is normal.  You (mom and/or dad) become a favorite person in the baby's life, and your baby loves to be near you.  It is expected that the baby will cry (sometimes) when you leave.  She may cry when you put her down for a nap, walk out of the room, leave her with a baby sitter, or leave her in day care.  This is normal.  


We should first recognize that all babies have differences.  Some babies get upset more easily than others.  Some babies like the excitement of going to a stranger, and others do not.  Some babies seem to be happy about everything, and some babies are generally cranky.  That is just the way it is.  They are all different.


As a parent, you want to prevent separation protests from turning into Separation Anxiety Disorder (SAD), which occurs in about 3% of children.  SAD is excessive anxiety when the parent leaves.  One way to prevent separation protests from turning into SAD is to respond thoughtfully to your baby’s separation protests.


An experiment was conducted with 23 infants (ages 6-11 months) and their mothers.  When the mother predictably returned to the baby if the baby protested, the crying increased.  In fact, after mom did this for about 10 days, the babies cried on almost 100% of the separations.  The next 10 days, the mom would keep going if the baby cried.  At the end of this time, the babies cried 0-20% of the time, and the amount of playing increased dramatically.


What happened?  Mother attention (returning to the baby) is a big reward.  It is exactly what the baby wanted when he cried.  So, mom returning to the crying baby rewarded crying, and crying during separations increased.  The crying didn’t completely go away when mom did not respond to cries. Why?  Because the babies were not happy that mom, their favorite person, was leaving.  This is to be expected.  But, we need to be careful not to predictably respond to crying, by returning to the baby, when we leave our baby.  Although it was not tested, it seems that returning to the baby when the baby stayed calm, and keeping going when the baby cried, would increase staying calm when mom leaves. (maybe I should do that experiment – any volunteers who want to try this?).


Now, how do we treat separation anxiety (maybe even separation anxiety disorder).  Well, if the child is old enough to talk, or understand our talk, we should talk about something good that will happen when mommy returns.  You can have a special tickle time, pick the child up and toss her into the air (if she loves that), or some activity.  Tell the child what you she needs to play quietly while you are gone, and when you come back you will [tell her the fun thing you will do].  You can role play this at home.  Move away from the child as much as you can without her crying.  Maybe you just turn your back to her.  Then pretend that you are returning and you do the fun thing.  Repeat this while going further away from the child and staying away longer.  What you are doing is making it fun for you to return.  You are also giving your child practice at staying calm while you leave.  Ah yes, you cannot return unless you leave!  So the great fun will not happen unless you leave.  All this makes you leaving less traumatic for your child, and so the anxiety decreases.


Give it a try and let me know how it works for you.  There are other techniques, but they generally involve making a game out of staying calm and then something good happening when mom or dad returns.