It is also important to understand that many children go through separation anxiety regression. For example, a child who has not cried at drop off for many months may once again show signs of separation anxiety, especially after a prolonged illness, vacation, new school, potty training, new bed or bedroom, or changes in the family (birth, death, move, conflict, divorce, separation), etc.
Here are some tips to help both parent and child navigate this developmental stage.
Your infant will begin to experience separation anxiety after they understand object permanence. Meaning, they understand that an object (in this case, you) exists even when not within sight and sound! This development stage can start as soon as 4-5 months of age, and often peaks at around 9 months of age.
To support your infant:
- Practice shorter absences, and build up to longer ones – if you don’t have a partner or family member to leave your child with, consider hiring a sitter
- Ensure your baby is healthy, well rested and well fed before leaving them
- Keep goodbyes consistent, confident and quick! Offer smiles, hugs, and say goodbye. Then simply leave. Experts say lingering can actually make separation anxiety worse!
- If your infant is experiencing nighttime separation anxiety, you can reassure them with your touch or calming words – but avoid picking up your baby or bringing them to your bed. If you are comfortable, give some reassurance, then leave the room. If your child continues to cry, you can return and try again. Be sure to spend awake hours in their nursery/sleeping environment playing, reading books, snuggling, etc., which will foster feelings of security.
- When you are reunited with your infant after an absence, be sure to have some one-on-one time with them, even 10-15 minutes! This could be cuddles, reading, or playing together!
- A white noise machine may be a helpful soothing tool to help your baby stay asleep for longer periods of time
- A video monitor is also helpful for safe monitoring of your child without physically having to be present in the room with them
As toddlers near the 15-18 month mark and are beginning to develop a sense of autonomy, a stronger response to separation is often triggered. A toddler may suddenly become more emotional and dramatic, as well having lengthier reactions with redirection no longer effective.
To help your toddler transition:
- We will say it again . . . keep goodbyes consistent, confident and quick! Offer smiles, hugs, and say goodbye. Then simply leave. Experts say lingering can actually make separation anxiety worse!
- Leave a lovey/security toy or blanket with your child
- Reassure in simple, confident tones that you will be back, and let your child know that you look forward to doing _____ with them later that day.
- If possible, practice leaving your child for shorter amounts of time, and gradually increase the time away from them.
- Keep a consistent routine: morning home to school routine, drop off routine, goodnight routine, etc. Routine helps a child know what to expect and takes away fear of the unknown.
- Read a book about saying goodbye, such as The Kissing Hand by Audrey Penn
- Give your child opportunities at home to play alone: for example, after naptime they can play in their crib or bedroom for a while; while you are cooking dinner, your child can play in the living room. The goal is to encourage independent play while you are out of sight and sound.
- Ask your child’s teacher to help with a difficult drop off by being available to welcome the child and having an activity ready for them!
Many preschoolers (children ages 3 and up) still experience separation anxiety but are now able to communicate some of their thoughts and feelings. They are keen observers of cause and effect. If they notice certain pleas, expressions, words, gestures or actions trigger a desired reaction from you, they will revisit that over and over again! For example, if pleading with mom and dad for “five more minutes” makes mom or dad linger at drop off, then they will continue to use that technique to get extra time with mom or dad! It’s important at this stage to stay consistent with short, sweet and confident goodbyes, regardless of your child’s response.
In addition, the tips above for toddlers work well to help ease a preschool child’s separation anxiety.
Remember, It’s a Season
A child’s anxious cries often trigger mixed emotions from parents: anxiety, exasperation, resentment, confusion, guilt, or even unloving! In the moment, it can be difficult to remember that this is just a short window of time in your child’s development.
Remember, this is a passing season, and it will get better!
If you feel that your child’s separation anxiety is unusual, or if it becomes stressful on your child or you and/or your partner, share your concerns with your child’s teacher, pediatrician and/or therapist.