Velcro baby: handling your bub's separation anxiety
Get the inside word on detaching calmly and gently from your baby when separation anxiety rears its head.
By Jan Murray, child-health consultant
June 02 2016
If you're like most parents, at some stage you'll experience a time when your little one becomes a 'velcro baby'. He'll hold on tight and won't let go when you try to put him down, or if you take one step away he'll cry and reach out for you in a desperate attempt to go with you.
Even going to the bathroom or having a shower may prove difficult to do without your bubba dissolving into a flood tears. You'll probably find that these acts of insecurity are heightened when your littlie is unwell, teething, tired or hungry, too. But don't panic - it's all perfectly normal!
Separation anxiety is a phase in your baby's development that typically occurs around seven to nine months of age, when many littlies are starting to crawl. Around this time your bubba is developing a sense of what is known as 'object permanence,' which is the idea that just because something is out of sight and out of hearing doesn't mean it no longer exists.
The new skill of crawling takes him away from his place of security, which is his primary carer, and the passion to explore, plus his leap in brain development, makes him feel unsure whether he can get back to you or that you will come back to him when you leave. How you handle this period of separation anxiety will have a strong influence on how well your bub learns to separate.
To help your baby adjust, don't always rush to the rescue and pick him up and take him with you. Instead, help him feel comfortable with separating. Come back to him and play for a few more minutes before trying to head for the bathroom again. As you leave the room, let him see that you feel confident saying goodbye. Talk to him in an upbeat tone as you leave, assuring him that he's okay and that you'll be coming back soon. This is the same process to use when leaving your baby at daycare or grandma's.
Give him time to feel comfortable in the company of the new carer before you leave, though, as this will help him to separate with a minimum of distress. Avoid sneaking away too. Always say goodbye, lest an unexpected disappearance leaves bub wondering when and if you'll return, which builds mistrust and feelings of insecurity.
You may find your baby experiences separation anxiety at bedtime too, as this is a period of long separation. Avoid cry-it-out strategies to encourage sleep during these times, as this will only cause more distress. Be aware that your baby's temperament (easy, difficult or slow-to-warm) will have a major impact on how he copes with this stage of his development. The harmony of the home environment and whether dad works away for extended periods can also play a role in your littlie's ability to separate.
Hello, old friend
Object permanence isn't completely established until your littlie is about two years old, which means that separation anxiety may rear its head again when he's around 15 to 18 months of age. At this time your child's inquisitive nature and spirit reaches a new level that often causes the clingy behaviour and distress of separating from significant carers to reoccur.
This is because his brain development has taken another leap and his understanding of the world has changed. At this age your littlie has an amazing grasp of language and can understand what you say, even if he can't say it back yet. For this reason be sure to talk to him, tell him what is happening, where you are going, and when you will be back. Wave goodbye and eventually he'll associate going away with coming back once more.
Patience and calm
Whether it's your child's first or second round with separation anxiety, keep his life stable and help him through the period of insecurity and uncertainly. Have a regular routine, feed him healthy foods and encourage good day and night sleep patterns. In order to limit distress, these are not the best periods to go on an extended holiday or, if it can be avoided, to go back to work.
Most importantly, while separation anxiety can prove difficult for you and your little one, try to accept that it's a normal stage of brain maturity and infant development, and remain patient, encouraging and reassuring.
Stay calm yourself (the more secure and relaxed you feel and act, the better he will feel in the situation), but be sensitive to your littlie's individual temperament and needs. Try not to push him away too soon or hold on too tight for too long, as this can hinder the developmental process of independence and self-assurance.
Don't fall into the trap of comparing your bub to other bubs of the same age, either, as every child and every environment is different, and as always, seek professional help if you feel that separation is an ongoing problem for your child.