If you have read my previous blog posts you’ll know I generally have it pretty easy with my chilled-out little boy. He sleeps through the night, eats like a champ and is always smiling and giggling – a delight! However, over the last few weeks the dreaded ‘separation anxiety’ has struck, bang on time according to the NHS website. Initially, even with a background in Psychology, it was hard for me to recognise separation anxiety in my own child. I put his upsets down to physical causes like teething or tummy ache.

In this article I explain how I knew Isaac had entered this phase and why it is actually healthy and normal. I hope it can help you to spot the phase in your baby and find ways to manage it successfully.

What is separation anxiety?

Separation anxiety is experienced by nearly all babies and young children at some point. It tends to coincide with change in their lives, such as the start of nursery, though not always. It occurs when children realise how dependent they are on the adults around them for love as well as caregiving. Some adults also experience it (in an abnormal and unhealthy way) when they have developed insecure attachments.

When babies experience separation anxiety, although slightly annoying at the time, it is actually a good sign that they have bonded well to their caregivers. It is important that this phase is short-lived; the ability to thrive and enjoy life away from mum and dad is indicative of a secure and healthy attachment.

Signs baby is experiencing it

If your baby becomes more clingy or cries when you leave them even for short amounts of time, they may be experiencing separation anxiety. This occurs at any time from 6 months to 3 years of age (peaking at 10 months) but it should be a passing phase.

Isaac is now just shy of 8 months old. Up until now I could leave him to nap alone and he would get himself to sleep. I could also (safely!) leave him to play on his tummy or back while quickly popping out of the room. This is no longer possible unless I happen to be in the mood for mopping up meltdown tears.

Isaac is such a happy baby with no obvious upsets when around me or his daddy. He is also able to self-soothe a little if left for a while. I doubt this would happen if he were in physical pain. For example, if I pop him in his cot while brushing my teeth, he’ll then stop crying after a couple of minutes. If I then check on him and he catches my eye before I walk away again, the crying will restart. This is a clear sign of separation anxiety in action!

Snug as a bug in his Mothercare pushchair

Isaac is also going through a ‘nap-refusal’ (or more accurately ‘nap-alone-refusal’!) I am currently doing a 10,000 steps a day walking challenge for charity (Cancer Research UK). Even without this challenge I think I would still be doing these steps as Isaac will only nap in his pushchair. He usually loves his cot and since birth has been happy being left there awake to go to sleep by himself. I am assuming this is another sign of separation anxiety. If he knows I’m there (or his dad) he will drop off no problem. He still naps in our arms in the afternoon, usually following his milk, but dare transport him to his cot and we are playing with fire!

Stranger fear

A fear of strangers tends to coincide with separation anxiety.

Because of restrictions due to covid19, Isaac hasn’t been around any ‘strangers’, certainly not without me there. He hasn’t joined a nursery and, apart from a few hours alone with his grandparents, he has been with me constantly. Therefore it has been tricky to see how he would respond to strangers. Even with me around, he has always been a little wary of others for a few minutes before cracking a smile and relaxing. He seems to be one of the more shy babies in our NCT group, taking a while to ‘trust’ the others and be sociable. (From the few occasions we have been able to meet up – damn coronavirus!). Interestingly, his personality exactly mirrors mine and his dad’s – introverted around new people and extroverted around familiar ones!

Although it has been hard to see if Isaac would be fearful of strangers and clingy to me or his dad, I have noticed how his behaviour changes depending on the parent he is with. Daddy is the go to ‘funny guy’. There is nothing I can do to come close to daddy’s jokes and fun. Isaac absolutely adores having a giggle with him and they have these ‘in jokes’ which boring mummy here just doesn’t get! On the other hand, if Isaac is upset or unsure of something, it is me he turns to. In true stereotypical fashion I am the one who mops up the tears and gives the cuddles while daddy is the one to bring out the smiles!

After talking to a few friends about this, they seem to have similar experiences. It fascinates me how a baby can differentiate between his parents so intelligently and ‘choose’ them to appropriately respond to his needs at the time.

Coping with separation anxiety

  1. Remember that separation anxiety is normal and don’t feel guilty leaving your baby with another caregiver. My short term plan is to be a stay-at-home mum so Isaac won’t be joining a nursery for the time being. However, it is important that he experiences times without me or his dad. I look forward to post-covid times when he can have playdates with other babies or be looked after by his grandparents. Leaving your baby for short periods can really improve their independence and coping strategies as they get older.
  2. Help your baby to understand and deal with their feelings. Explain where you are going and show how you always come back to collect them. Also talk to them about what you will do together later.
  3. When leaving your baby with someone else try hard not to show any anxiety you yourself have. Put on a brave face and a confident smile and they are more likely to do the same. As a primary school teacher, I have seen many parents doing this despite having their own worries. The children are none-the-wiser and super happy thinking their parents are too!

I hope the above advice is useful to you (and also to me!)

However, sometimes children can become overly distressed and upset by separation. If this happens and it affects your ability to leave them it is worth getting advice from your health visitor.