8 Tips for Handling “Infant” Separation Anxiety

Infant Separation Anxiety


Infant  Separation Anxiety begins  around 6-8 months when infants suddenly become fully aware that their parents exist apart from them.  They understand that their parents can leave,  but they don’t,  however,  fully understand that they are coming back.  This can last several weeks to several months.   Infants eventually realize  that their parents are not disappearing forever, but just going to the bathroom!  And they will come back.

In our ” Mommy and Me ” Program,  we “practice ” parents going away and coming back every time we play peek-a-boo and every time  we use our colored scarves while singing the  song,  “Someone is Hiding” .   This helps infants to understand and to manage their separation anxiety.  For toddler separation anxiety we also recommend  listening  to one of our favorite songs on our Hap Palmer CD entitled   “My Mommy Comes Back”.  This song is so reassuring to young children.  “My mommy comes back,  she always comes back,  she never will forget me.”

Here are 8 Tips for Handing Infant Separation Anxiety

1. Play “peek-a-boo”  several times a day. This activity is a way for babies to “practice” their understanding of going away and coming back.

2. Tell your baby you are going away into the other room and then say a big “I’m back” when you come back.

3. Introduce your baby to other regular caregivers such as grandparents or a trusted babysitter during infancy for short periods of time.  These experiences can minimize anxiety later on.

4. Keep your “good-byes” short.  Prolonging your departure can give your baby the idea there is something to fear.

5. Match your body language with your words.

6. Flash a smile and give a cheerful wave.  Your baby can sense your confidence as you walk out the door.

7. Avoid sneaking off.  This interferes with trust and increases anxiety.

8.  Instruct caregivers to redirect baby’s attention directly after you leave.  Make sure that your baby’s transitional object or “blankie” is available so that the caregiver can use it to provide extra comfort for your baby while you are gone.


Watch for tips on handling toddler separation anxiety and  stranger anxiety next week.

Ariko Yoshizawa MA and Marilee Hartling RN, MFT


17 comments


  • Deborist Nadine Benjamin

    I really appreciate this article on separation anxiety, however what if you have the exact opposite situation when your toddler (now four year old) has no problem going to others. My grand baby has never had separation anxiety through out the years, and it has made me contemplate the possibility of R.A.D.,( Disinhibited Behavior). “Children with disinhibited behavior seek attention from virtually everyone, including strangers. This may happen when a baby has multiple caregivers or frequent changes in caregivers. Children with this type of reactive attachment disorder may frequently ask for help doing tasks, have inappropriately childish behavior or appear anxious.” But he has not had multiple caregivers,(has a stay at home Mom) nor does he ask for any help with DAP tasks, and he does not act or appear anxious, he just simply has no problem going to strangers or little known people for babysitting on occasion. He just does not have the concept of ‘stranger danger’ in his head, this concerns me…am I an over protective paranoid G-mother?

    April 25, 2011
    • Marilee

      Deborist,

      Thank you for your comment and question.

      Yes, it is unusual for infants and toddlers to exhibit no separation or stranger anxiety at all at some point during their early development. It actually is something we look for as a normal part of growth, and we tell parents to celebrate the fact that the baby has a close, healthy attachment to mom and dad AND is realizing his/her separateness. Separation anxiety and stranger anxiety comes and goes and usually heightens during the second year of life.

      Sometimes this stage is delayed and we see it later. Sometimes it comes in a mild form and is barely noticed. Sometimes there is a disturbance in the attachment or other stressors in the family that effect it. Sometimes there is a diagnosis present.

      It is difficult to know what is happening with your grandchild just by your description. I would need a lot more information. Have you spoken to your grandchild’s parents to get a history? Perhaps there actually WAS some separation and stranger anxiety when he was younger but it was not when you were around?

      I am available for telephone consultations and would be happy to set up an appointment for you if you want to discuss this further. If the family has concerns, let then know that I am here for parent appointments as well and would be happy to see them in the office.

      Marilee Hartling RN, MFT
      (323) 655-5580

      May 4, 2011
  • Vivien NYC

    Here is my song “Mama Back Soon” I wrote for my own kids dealing with separation. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fV_8EEzMj3I

    December 22, 2011
  • Jonette

    My daughter is 4 months old and stays with my in-laws about 20 hours per week. She is fine with them as long as my husband or I are with them. She laughs and plays and lets them hold her. As soon as I put my work bag on my shoulder she cries for me. At first it stressed me out which probably made it worse so now I make her laugh and tickle her and say bye bye with a big smile and it distracts her enough until I go. They say she cries a little after I go but then is fine after several minutes. Just wondering since she’s young for separation anxiety according to all the websites if that means it will get worse as she gets older? Maybe it means she’s really smart and understands this whole thing early! Lol. I should probably expose her to more people to get her used to it. I was a nervous child and she’s probably like me but I’m trying to not be stressed or nervous and let her pick up on it!

    January 23, 2012
    • Marilee

      Thanks for your question, Jonette. Yes, separation anxiety usually does get worse as your baby gets older. It typically comes and goes throughout the first 2 years of life. Your 4 month old daughter has become much more aware of her environment and who is in it. This is typical of 4 month old infants. She has figured out that when you put on your work bag, you are going to leave which means she is developing real memory! She is letting you know she doesn’t like it when you leave which is also typical at this age. Babies between the ages of 4 and 6 months usually become much more “discriminating” about their attachment figures,usually preferring their primary attachment figure, mom.This also is typical. As she begins to crawl away from you she will experience an increase in separation anxiety again until she develops object permanence. The good news is that your baby recovers quickly after you leave right now. It helps when you make the good-bye short and positive. Let her you will always come back and follow some of the other suggestions mentioned in the article. This will help.

      January 24, 2012
  • Tess

    I have recently started sitting for a 4 month old a few hours a day. Initially she was comfortable with me, cooing at me and smiling, she napped for me too. When it came time to give her a bottle, she became very upset. Her parents say she was having some trouble with the bottle, but not much. It seemed more that she just didn’t want the bottle from me, pretty much a stranger. The next day she was asleep when I arrived, but was very upset when I picked her up at the conclusion of her nap. Her mother and I have been trying to “introduce” me to her, having her hold her while I play with her and vice versa. It seems to be working pretty well, she has been calm when the mother leaves, but the bottle is still an issue. I have experience with infants who really struggled with the bottle but, I don’t think it is just the bottle that is the issue. I feel it is a combination of wanting to nurse and having separation anxiety. Do you have any suggestions?

    March 22, 2012
    • Ariko

      Hi Tess, I agree it is both of those issues, separation anxiety and wanting to nurse. It is best if you can arrive before the baby goes down for her nap. That way, she is not surprised when she wakes up and mommy is not there. You need to have lots of contact with her so that you are not a stranger and she is familiar with you. Feel free to email me at info@ecdevelopment.org. I have some other suggestions to offer and there is more room to write you if it is by email. Look forward to connecting with you again. Marilee

      March 27, 2012
  • Lisa

    My 6 month old has a major sleep issue which began at 4 months. While at first I thought it was acid reflux, the medication has only prevented her from waking screaming once in awhile. Now, she is still waking at night and the only comfort is giving her my hand which she grabs onto tightly and puts to her face. The doctor believed from day one that this sleep issue was really separation anxiety… Last night was my breaking point. After sleeping soundly for 6 hours, she woke literally 12 times in an hour and a half, sleeping only for minutes at a time. Since I have been through this before, trying food as well as changing her in vain, I finally broke down from exhaustion and put her in the bed next to me. Within seconds she was asleep and slept for another 3 hours until morning. I am trying to follow the Secrets of the Baby Whisperer because my husband and I refuse to let her cry. If this is, in fact, separation anxiety, what can I do to address this issue at night?

    May 14, 2012
  • Rachel

    My daughter is 11 months old. She is friendly and will smile & wave to anyone and everyone…but that is where it ends. She will not allow anyone but me, my husband, my mom and her daycare teachers (2 ladies) actually carry her. Is that a normal part of separation anxiety? Also, one of us on her “chosen list” must be in the room with her or she will come unglued as soon as she realizes she is in the company of the “not chosen.”

    August 7, 2012
    • Marilee

      This is very normal at her age. It is a typical stage in her development as she becomes aware of her separateness. The treatment for separation anxiety is to make yourself as available as possible. This may mean sitting with her on the floor while you do your work. You will need to let your friends and family members know that she is going thorough her normal stage of separation anxiety and she may be clingy when they come over. Don’t worry. It will go away. If you are very concerned about it, please call our center and we can do a consultation over the phone or in the office if you live near by.

      October 2, 2012
  • Aimee

    My baby is 6 months old. I have been in the hospital 3 times since her birth, and have to go back in a month. She will not let anyone else hold her for more than a few min without crying for “ma”. Could this separation anxiety be exaggerated because I was away? And, what tips do you have for us to prepare again?

    September 6, 2012
    • Marilee

      Yes, absolutely! The separation anxiety is exaggerated because you were away. The treatment is to make yourself as availailable as possible while you can and always prepare her for separations. Before you go into the hospital next time, talk to her about where you are going to be going. You can wave at the hospital when you drive by and even visit the hospital waiting room with your baby before you go in as a patient. Say something like “this is where mommy will go when she has to have her boo boo fixed (or whatever it is that you are having done in the hospital).” “Mommy will miss you and grandma (the main caretaker) will come to take care of you and soon mommy will come back.” Also, make sure that she has trantional object to hold preferably something that smells like mommy. This will help to maintain the connection to you when you are not there. I often a make a simple book that tells the story of what will happen or what has already happened when there has been a separation (see the blog for making stories). If you need more help, feel free to contact me at our center. We can schedule a consultation.

      October 2, 2012
  • Catherine

    My 11 month old is fine if we are at home, but if we go anywhere he cries if anyone else holds him. This has been going on for about 2 months, I feel like he will never grow out of it, it is really hard on me and everyone who is around us.
    He won’t even let his grandparents hold him.
    Any advise would be great.
    thanks

    September 19, 2012
  • Brittany Robbins

    Hi,

    My daughter is 9 months old. She used to love being at the crèche at gym. She would cry when I went to put her back in her pram. The last two times however the staff told me that she would cry if the tried to put her down. At home she is not at all like this and loves rolling around ( not quite crawling yet) or sitting and playing. Is there anything I can do about this? I really need the exercise for my well being, but not want to make her distraught!

    Thanks heaps,

    Brittany R.

    October 16, 2012
    • Ariko

      Hi Brittany, At nine months, your daughter could definitely having separation anxiety. As long as the daycare provider is able to hold and comfort her, leaving her for a little while should not be a problem. If she is not able to provide her with comfort, it is probably not a good idea to leave her right now. This stage is temporary and will pass. Let me know how it’s going. Marilee

      November 13, 2012
  • Marilee

    MK,
    Thank you for your communication and questions about separation anxiety. Separation anxiety is very common in 9 month old babies. As babies begin to crawl and move away from Mommy there is a sudden realization of their own separateness which can be scarey. The baby cries because she has not yet developed an understanding of
    ” object permanency” which is the knowlege that objects and people exist even when we cannot see them. Over time your baby will come to understand that you and other people do exist when she cannot see them and the anxiety about separation will lessen. Your baby will begin to understand that Mommy goes away and she always comes back. But right now, she is anxious when you are out of her sight and she needs your helpand patience to develop her understanding of “object permanancy”. You can help by using your voice to maintain contact when you walk into another room. You can play games with her like “peek-a-boo” during which you go away for a minute and come back right away. You can also cover up toys and other objects with a blanket or towel and then playfully uncover the toy, saying “peek-a-boo”! The “treatment” for separation anxiety is to remain close and allow your baby more access to you while she is going through this stage of development. Sit on the floor and let the baby crawl up to you to check in when she needs to.
    Sneeking out actually worsens separation anxiety and this may be the reason for your baby’s “severe” reaction. When you sneek out your baby learns to be “on guard” all the time because she never knows when you will disappear again. She will cry more because she is worrying that at any moment you will go away again. My recommendation is to develop a “good-bye” ritual and always use it when you leave. Even if your baby cries and tantrums. Never sneek out. Over time your baby will become less anxious and the crying will lessen too. She will learn that she can count on you to always let her know when you are going away. And then she will learn that she can always count on you to come back.

    August 19, 2011
  • This is eaxlcty what I was looking for. Thanks for writing!

    December 17, 2011

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