Separation Anxiety... is it me or my kid?

Updated: Dec 10, 2020

Separation anxiety is a normal part of child development that usually can be seen to begin for babies from 6 months up to three years old. It is something that happens for all babies, for some it can be felt stronger whereas for others it can be fleeting, or at the most unexpected times.

The question of "will my baby be ok" if I leave them hangs heavy for some parents, and feelings around this can be exacerbated if the choice to spend time away from your baby is not fully your first choice, for example, a need to return to work, hospital stays, or parental separation.

It is not uncommon that a mother will leave their child for the first time once they are many months old, for some it is only the call to return to work that can cause this separation, and it can be hard for all involved.

Part of why it can be hard to leave your baby can be due to how secure you feel about the situation, do you trust who you are leaving your baby with? But also and more often out of your control, it pulls on how secure are as an adult, which is all tide into your own childhood experiences.

When we talk about a secure base and secure attachments for children, this impacts directly on their life as an adult. If you experienced trauma, or had insecure attachments with your parents or main caregivers, this can impact greatly on how secure you feel in being separated from your own child.

I write this to reassure that anxiety about leaving your baby is absolutely normal, and the level of anxiety you have around this can vary, so it is important not to compare yourself to other parents.

I remember the first time I left my first born vividly, I was very anxious about this, she was four months old, and we attended our friends 30th birthday dinner party. The guest next to me asked me how old my daughter was and when told then stated "wow, it's taken you a long time to leave her, most people leave their babies earlier don’t they?”, initially I was taken aback and then I asked “how old are your children?” and she replied “I don’t have any”. And that there I realized was a bit of a problem.

How do we know what is normal? How long should it take to leave a child? Society sometimes feels it has the privilege of telling parents what they should do when it comes to the relationship they have with their children, but unfortunately society often neglects to take into consideration attachment and the biological ties that influence the parent and child relationship.

For some leaving their baby with trusted adults to care for them, can cause a little nervousness but for others, it can feel that they have physically had a limb removed, nearly suffocating and incredibly hard.

So what can help?

First it can help to know that you can support your baby, and feel confident that your short term separation is not going to cause them harm, it is absolutely ok for you to continue with other parts of your life. In fact if your baby is experiencing separation anxiety it is a healthy sign that they have developed a strong bond with you which is a strong resilience factor for your child as they grow.

I have written some helpful ideas on what can help ease the experience of separation between child and parents.

  • Increasing the length of time of separation gradually can help your little one adjust and learn to trust who they are with when not with you. Simply learning they will be fed if you are not there may take a little time.

  • Try to make saying goodbye fun, even if you are feeling anxious, try your hardest to communicate that all is ok. Give time for your little one to say goodbye too, it can take around 12 seconds for a baby to respond and say goodbye. Try not to cut them short on this and please avoid the urge to sneak away.

  • For a child to feel secure, and develop that strong attachment, they need to know you will keep showing up, so having a routine where your little one knows you will come to collect them or will arrive home at a certain time can help. For example if still at home with another parent, they may have a snack then storytime and then you come home. The snack and story time signal to your baby you will come home soon. Many children in formal daycare get very used to the rigid routine and will work out quickly exactly what time to expect you to walk through the door to pick them up.

  • If your little one has a favourite cuddly this can become their “transitional object”, this is something that simply reminds them of you and triggers feelings of safety and comfort. To make your little one’s comforter particularly helpful during times of separation when they are staying home and you are leaving, spend a couple of nights sleeping with said toy so it picks up your smell and this will be lovely and comforting for your little one in your absence. Some also swear by mum’s or dad’s Tshirt over the shoulder of the babysitter to help soothe the baby.

(Smell is such a powerful sense. My kids have teddy bears made of my Grandad’s old clothes and I can't bear to let them play with them, as I do not want them to lose the smell that evokes such feelings of security in me! I’m 33!)

  • Reconnecting after separation. Having time just the two of you and allowing your little one to show you how they are feeling, whether that's sad, grumpy, tired or utterly over the moon to see you. You may find your little one has a big emotional release once back in your arms and you may wonder what has happened to make them cry. Your little one simply needs to cry to relieve that emotional tension built up during the separation. Close proximity is very important.

  • Value familiarity, reading the same favourite stories together and singing the same favourite songs, whilst cuddling close will reassure your little one and reinforce feelings of security.

  • Skin to skin and lots of cuddles can help to sooth and reconnect. I love massage as a way to communicate the deepest of love, trust and respect to your little one. Increase Oxytocin, lower cortisol, and enjoy how eachother smells, making eye contact and listening to each other about your days. The wonderful thing is that this won’t only benefit your little one but it will really benefit you too by lowering your cortisol levels and giving you an endorphin boost.

Lastly, I simply encourage you to listen to your baby/ child, acknowledge what they are telling you and reassure them that this will get easier, they are safe and very much loved and you will come back.

If you feel things are not getting easier don't hesitate to talk to someone, your health visitor/ BVC nurse can help if you have concerns for your child or would like to talk to a Kurator for your own wellbeing. I also provide one to one Time to Talk sessions led by what you need, so please don’t hesitate to get in touch if you would like more information about the services I offer in English.

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