Separation anxiety normally begins when babies are about 6–7 months old. This is when they've learned that things and people still exist after they leave. This can be a challenging time both for parents and their babies, but it's a healthy milestone that most pediatricians look for in childhood development.
You might be wondering how your baby crying every time you are out of their sight is a good thing. But believe it or not, it is! It means that you and your baby have bonded. As they grow up, they will continue to depend on you for many things.
Separation anxiety is a normal part of your baby growing up and a healthy developmental milestone. Your baby is beginning to realize that every person and object is unique and permanent (object permanence), including their parents. This is usually around the age that your baby begins to cry or hide when other relatives or babysitters come to visit.
At this stage of development, babies are not able to express their feelings and resort to crying and other outbursts. They do, however, understand what you are saying to them. Reassure them that you will be back and that it is okay.
These feelings of anxiety will subside as your child gets older, experiences more positive social interactions, and develops both physically and emotionally.
If these symptoms of separation anxiety continue into elementary school, it's a good idea to talk to your doctor. When these symptoms continue in older children, it is referred to as separation anxiety disorder (SAD). If your child's separation anxiety symptoms seem to increase in intensity or become prolonged, then they may have SAD.
This is particularly true if their separation anxiety interferes with school or other daily activities or if these symptoms advance to panic attacks or other problems. Sometimes children with separation anxiety are worried about being lost or separated from their parents or have fears that something terrible will happen to their parents.
The signs and symptoms of separation anxiety are brought on by emotions. As such, they are rarely associated with any physical symptoms. Signs of anxiety in children can include:
- Crying when you leave the room or are preparing to
- Being increasingly clingy and not wanting to be put down
- Shyness or negative reactions to strangers
- Difficulty putting them down for the night and/or frequent awakening
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There are several times in your child's life when you will see an increase in separation anxiety symptoms. These generally occur when your baby is also accomplishing other childhood milestones. These times might include any or all of the following:
6–7 months old — Your baby becomes aware of object permanence and knows that things and people can go away.
9–10 months old — This is when your baby is starting to learn regular routines and habits. Your baby might start noticing you gathering your things before leaving or giving kisses goodbye. These little practices are routine, and your baby is beginning to recognize them as a cue that they are about to be separated from you.
16–18 months — Your baby can anticipate that you will be leaving the room or house, but they don't know how to express their feelings yet. At this point in their life, they can comprehend a great deal of language but may only be speaking a few words. Reassure them that you will be back, and when you return, remind them of your promise. This is when separation anxiety in children usually peaks.
It can be very difficult for parents to deal with separation anxiety. Remember that this behavior doesn't mean you've done anything wrong. You might hear people say that your child is acting this way because they are spoiled or that they are a "mommy's baby," but separation anxiety is completely normal behavior.
Separation anxiety can be more difficult for parents than children at times. You need to be at work on time, get enough sleep, and take care of yourself and your baby. Babies will recover quickly once you are out of sight, but you might worry about them throughout the day.
Remember that your baby isn't doing this to be mean or cause you (or others) distress. It is a normal part of childhood development, and you should take a consistent but loving approach to separation anxiety. Even if you plan to be gone for just a minute or two, reassure your child that you will be right back. It may be necessary to practice this at varying times to overcome the anxiety. Your child will eventually understand and calmly look forward to your return.