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How to Overcome Your Baby’s Separation Anxiety

On a scale from 1 to 10, let’s find out where your child lands on the “Separation Anxiety in Babies” scale.

Is he a one?

Glad you exist, Mom, but I’m totally rocking these toys over here.
I’ll let you know when I’m hungry, otherwise leave me be.

Or is he a ten?

Must. Grip. Shirt.  Is she trying to move away?
SOUND THE ALERT!
*waaaaaaaaaaaaaail*

Today we’re going to dig into the deep dark scary world of “separation anxiety”.  

We’ll go over symptoms.

We’ll announce cures.

We may even chuckle once or twice.  (No promises.  I know how tired you are.)

Is Your Baby Dealing With
Separation Anxiety?

If it isn’t the million dollar question of the day…

I swear, 98% of parenting a baby can seem like random guessing. The day I invent a “baby translator” is the day that I purchase Ireland and start a utopia. #livinthedream

Until that day happens (keep praying, my Irish friends!), it’s my job to inform your guesses so more of them land on a BINGO.  

So, here goes.

The Non-Helpful Age Clue

I say this is non-helpful because, really, every baby’s different.

I’ve worked with babies as young as 4-5 months, who were waking up at night not because they were hungry, but because mom had just returned to work and they needed the extra cuddles and reassurance.

That said, though, the typical “hot spots” in terms of age are around 6-8 months, 12 months, and 18 months.

Also remember, separation anxiety doesn’t start and stop like a car down the road.  It flows.  There are good days and bad days, high weeks and low…you get the picture.

The More-Helpful Observance Clue

Think back to the last week and ask yourself…

  • Does he seem more clingy than usual?
  • Does he cry when you step out of sight for a minute?
  • Does he seem to prefer one parent over another?
  • Does he seem anxious at naptime and bedtime at being alone?
  • Does he seem to instantly improve as soon as he sees a parent’s face?

3 Strategies to Overcome
Separation Anxiety in Your Baby

The emotion at the heart of your baby’s separation anxiety is FEAR.  (And THAT, my friends, is why you pay me the big bucks. #smarttalking)

So it makes sense that the best strategies that help separation anxiety are centered about building confidence.

Here are three ways to help him  cheerfully wave those chubby arms goodbye.

Separation Anxiety Strategy #1: Make Sure He’s Not Overtired

As some of our Sleep Session clients know, the brain secretes the hormone melatonin when it’s getting ready to head to Sleepyville.

Part of the reason it’s so important to create a predictable bedtime routine is to give his little brain the clue to start making melatonin.  It’s like the little white flag of sleeping surrender.

If you miss your child’s sleep window and he gets overtired, the brain will start secreting a hormone called cortisol instead.  This is a stress hormone.  If your baby’s brain is already swimming in cortisol and you decide to leave him….

*nuclear explosion*

Learn how to set up a routine throughout the day that will catch those sleepy windows and help him stay as rested as possible.  It will work wonders on his ability to exist without being tied firmly to your hip. 

Separation Anxiety Strategy #2: Introduce Him to Mr. Lovey

Mr. Lovey is a small blanket or stuffed animal that can sit in as a substitute to you.  (My older girls have “Mimi” blankets, and my youngest has “Lamby”.)

Mr. Lovey cuddles with him when you’re feeding, rocking, reading books, or in the car.  Mr. Lovey even plays with him (through your capable hands of course).  Eventually when he holds and looks at Mr. Lovey, he smells and thinks of you.

In other words, even when you’re not with him, Mr. Lovey is, and since Mr. Lovey equals YOU….you are always with him.

*mind blown*

If you’re still not convinced, check out For the Sake of Your Sleep: Why Your Baby Needs a Lovey.

Separation Anxiety Strategy #3: Practice Quiet Times

As an introvert, quiet times are a necessity to keep me on the “happy to have children” side of life.  Without them, I quickly degenerate into the Hulk: lots of grunts and roars.

Perhaps my BEST piece of advice in overcoming separation anxiety is to teach your child to build his self-confidence through Quiet Times.

Here’s how it works:

Step One:  Put him in the crib with some toys and a few beloved board books.  Play with him while he’s in the crib.  Do this for 10 minutes a couple times a day for 3 days.

Step Two:  Put him in the crib with some toys and board books.  Sit in the room and read or whatever, while he plays for 10 minutes a couple times a day for 3 days.

Step Three:  Repeat Step Two, but after 2-3 minutes when he seems engaged, leave the room for a few minutes.  If he cries, quickly return with smiles and sit down.  Repeat until you can leave for a few minutes.  Keep letting that time get longer and longer.

Step Four:  Put him down for his quiet time and leave the room.  Let him play alone (perhaps with music playing) for 30-45 minutes.

The goal here is to teach him how to be independently happy.

The Quiet Time technique is also great if your baby has a negative association with his nursery.  If he cries every time you walk in the room, how will he ever learn to sleep there?  Help him see the nursery is a happy place he enjoys spending time in and your crib-training will go much easier.

3 Things You Should Never Do
When Handling Separation Anxiety

I’ve shared the “shoulds,” but there are three “should-nots” you should be aware of.  (Catch what I did there? hehe)

Separation Anxiety No-No #1: Never Sneak Away

I know it’s tempting, but emotionally the “Sneak Away” costs more than it earns.  Sneaking away just highlights to your child that he has to be touching or looking at you AT. ALL. TIMES.  (And you thought he was clingy now…)

Offer a quick hug and a confident goodbye instead.  As hard as it is for him to see you leave, it’s a vital step in learning that you DO come back!

Separation Anxiety No-No #2: Never Act Like You’re Sad to Leave…Even If You Are

Your baby is as emotionally tuned into you as Kim Kardashian is to a camera.  They know…

If you are tearful and stressed when you leave, he will mimic those emotions while you’re gone.

Even if you don’t feel happy to leave him behind, go with the acting confidence of an Emmy-Winning Actress.  It will make it easier on you both.

Separation Anxiety No-No #3: Never Do the Hand-Off Transfer

If your child is doing the whole “rip mom’s shirt off at daycare” thing when you’re trying to leave, don’t have a caregiver pry his fingers away like a convict’s last glimpse of the sun. Who wants to head off to work with that traumatic image in the front of your mind all day?  Ugh.

Instead, put your little man on the ground and kneel beside him with a toy or a book or something, letting the caregiver sit beside him.  Once he’s interested in something, give him a smile, pat, and a kiss on the head and say “Goodbye for now, Little Champ!” (or whatever) and let the caregiver step in.

Yes, he’ll probably wail the house down, but the caregiver has got a BUNCH of distracting toys sitting right there in front of him.  Half the battle is already won!

I guarantee he’ll calm down a lot faster this way. (And you can leave with the pleasant image of him surrounded by activities and games instead!)

Does your infant struggle with separation anxiety? How have you handled it?

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13 thoughts on “How to Overcome Your Baby’s Separation Anxiety

  1. I just saw your article and wanted to discuss the steps that you have. my daughter is 6 months and constantly needs attention from someone, or simply wants to be held. (that someone is about 98.9% me..) she’s just now learning to sit up so I will put her in the playpen and even move it close by me when I’m cooking/cleaning etc. and she still will cry like no tomorrow, this is also with other things, like a jumperoo. some times I can get her to stay in there for 10 mins max. (when she is in the jumperoo she looks back to see if im still there and I always acknowledge her and say yayyy!!! real loud. she smiles and continues her thing, but if I leave, its back to crying.) I literally have to sit on the floor next to her while she plays.  I cant even go to the bathroom and not hear her cry.. I’m exhausted and would just like to be able to leave her by herself (in a safe place of course) for just a few so I can get things done. on your steps, you suggest letting me put her in the crib and let her play, what if she just freaks out and screams the entire time? do you pick her up or let her cry? she also likes to throw herself and puts herself in weird positions, do I fix her or let her fix herself? I have an idea for a lovey and will definitely associate that into her life. she does go to daycare during the week and I’m going to ask if she can have it there, I think it will help them as well because she does not like to sleep there and is very grumpy and past exhaustion by the time I pick her up. at home she does not do that, but I also lay next to her to sleep. can you provide me with some solutions to help her want to sleep at daycare?

    1. Kimmy,

      You mentioned daycare…is that something that’s relatively new? If so, a lot of this could be linked to her getting used to the new schedule.

      1. If she gets herself in weird positions, I would let her adjust herself, unless you feel it’s dangerous of course.

      2. I would follow the steps above for the quiet time, but perhaps lengthen it to 4 days instead of 3 for each step. You want to find the sweet spot between being supportive, but not hanging around so long she’s got a new expectation.

      3. Well done in your reaction to her in the jumperoo!! That was awesomely done. When she you are confident and happy, that will encourage her that she really IS okay, and she can venture out a little on her own.

      4. Perhaps work the daycare to see if they can help her get better rest while she’s there. If you haven’t taken the Napping Know-How Webinar yet, you may find it useful! There is a section in there about working with daycares to improve naps.

      Hopefully these things can encourage you, Kimmy. She’s also very close (or inside) a growth spurt, so it’s possible some of this may resolve itself in a week or two when she gets beyond it. Hang in there!

  2. Hello Heather, I found this article recently while trying to find ways to help my daughter (15 months). She has a really hard time with separation anxiety and I am sort of stuck in a weird position. Ive been a stay at home mom since we moved about a year ago. When we moved we went from having all of our family/support system within 10 mins of us to no one at all. Since we have very few people we know here I struggle with finding a way to practice separation for my daughter. We’ve been using the daycare at our gym but I feel bad because they are juggling a lot of other kids and my daughter just screams for at least 5 mins and is then just a time bomb waiting to explode (especially when other parents drop off their kids). I love the idea of a lovey but am not exactly sure how I would introduce one. Do you just start taking it everywhere and do everything with it. Also how do you make sure that other kids don’t take it when not being used? Additionally I am starting to wonder if it is affecting her sleep. She wakes frequently and I’ve always just gone in and nursed her back to sleep. Lately she has been waking a lot more and has not been napping well. She is teething so this regression could just be a product of that but in general she wakes 3-5 times a night. Therefore, making sure she isn’t overtired is a bit tough! I can’t help but worry that I am creating an even deeper issue because apart from gym daycare she is not left with anyone but my husband or I and usually it’s me. Thank you for this article. I am going to put these into practice and hopefully we find a balance!

    1. Christine,

      First of all, I can tell you are a loving mommy. You are working so hard to help your little one!

      I think your idea of introducing a lovey is a great one. Just start by handing it to her each time she goes to bed. If she decides she likes it then you can start taking it with you if you go to the gym. I wouldn’t worry too much about the other kids; but I would point out to the care givers that she has it along and that it is her lovey.

      Also, if your mama instincts tell you that the gym daycare isn’t working well for her right now, take a break from that. In a month or two she may be ready to try again. In the meantime, you could try switching your workout time to the evenings so your husband can watch your little one instead.

      I think you are probably right about the sleep being related to the teething. Take a look at this article for some helpful suggestions to help you both get more sleep.

  3. Hi Heather! I know this article is from awhile back, but we are deep into the 18 month sleep regression (potentially) fueled by separation anxiety.  You’ve helped me before so here it goes…my 18 month old has been sleeping great for naps and night for a long time now. Rarely wakes at night unless sick or teething; sometimes not even then. But ever since the holidays, he started resisting bedtime, and then is waking at least once to twice a night, screaming for “mommy” and “daddy,”  We got the resisting bedtime under control by just getting him back on a normal schedule, and we are able to put him down for bed just fine – falls asleep by himself.  Then, anywhere from 2-4am, he wakes up screaming and won’t stop unless one of us goes in, picks him up, and holds him until he falls back asleep enough to lay back down.  It’s killing us!!! Please, any advise would be welcomed!!!

    Thanks,

    Sam

    1. Samantha, I’d be happy to brainstorm some solutions with you. There are few things we could try, but let’s just start with ONE and then see where that gets us. 🙂

      1. Firstly, try putting him down for bed 30 minutes earlier than normal. I know that seems like an odd request, but oftentimes babies who are overtired at bedtime will have more wakeups at night.

      2. Use a sleep log to see if you can pin point the usual time he’s waking up. (If you can get more specific than 2-4 that would be great, but if not, go with 2am.) Set your own little alarm for 1:45 (or 15 minutes before his normal wakeup). Go in and gently move him, adjust a blanket, stroke his hand, etc. Use your most reassuring voice. The goal here is to reassure him BEFORE he wakes up screaming, to slip through this sleep cycle and go back to sleep without yelling the house down. There’s a little risk here, because you’re wanting to slightly wake him, but not completely wake him. Because of that, I’d try moving up the bedtime by 30 minutes for several days to see if that helps first, before trying this little trick.

      There is a natural sleep regression period at around 16-18 months, so this could also be playing a factor here. Soothe and reassure him, but try to avoid going backwards by creating new habits. Holding him to sleep for a few nights is fine. Doing it every night so now it’s an expectation is not. I hope this can help! xoxo

  4. Hi Heather!
    Well, your article “The Sandman’s School of Getting Baby to Sleep Through the Night” pretty much changed my life. Not kidding. Thanks for that.
    In it, you had recommended a book, got it, used it, happy mom.
    Now I’m off to the next thing, separation anxiety. Before I literally lose my shirt on this one, any recommended reads?
    I’ll obviously be giving the tips above a shot as of right now, but I was curious.

    Thanks again!

  5. Hi Heather,
    So my little guy is almost 14 weeks old and has hated being put in his car seat and being in a car since about 6 weeks old. I’ve tried putting toys on his seat, I’ve put a mirror that plays music but nothing seems to help. I offen don’t leave the house because I dread hearing him scream the entire car ride. We adjusted his straps felt for something poking him and got nowhere. Out of four children I have never had one hate being in a car! He will scream to the point I have to pull over and get him out and calm him down, beat red, soaking wet, and face full of tears. Please give me any suggestions for this problem as I don’t care to become a hermit simply because my baby hates riding in a car!!

    1. Hollie, oh friend that sounds terrible! One thing that popped in my mind was the fabric? I only ask because my 2nd is extremely sensitive to fabrics. Something we didn’t figure out until much later, but would have really helped us earlier. 🙂 To find out, you could take an extra crib sheet, have him sleep on it for 2-3 days, then put it over the car seat and cut out holes where the straps go and see what happens. (I know it sounds crazy, but some kids are really sensitive like that.)

      My second suggestion is to work on helping him bond to a lovey or a special blanket or something as soon as possible. Carry it with you whereever you go, cuddle with him and that object, so that he starts to associate YOU with that object. This could help in the car because as long as that stuffed bear (or blanket) is next to him in the car, he’s still touching “you”. Does that make sense? Hope this can help…it’s a tough one to be sure!

  6. Love these tips! Never thought about making the crib something other than kick/cry/sleep fest. Also, forgot all about a lovey – must.find.cute.lovey.today.

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