Many of us as parents or practitioners will have experienced a child who is struggling with separation anxiety and who wants to be with us all the time. When you try to go to the toilet, get up to answer the phone or just to get something from another room; there is a tearful and distressed baby trying to get to you as quickly as possible. This can be distressing for all involved, however it may be reassuring to know that this phase forms a vital part of a baby’s learning and development; be assured it is a phase most babies quickly move through.
Babies are not born with the understanding that things they can’t see still exist, it is only at about 8-9 months they begin to learn this, this is called ‘object permanence’. You will know when a baby is starting to gain this understanding as they will start to look for a person or object even when it is out of sight. This is a huge concept for children to understand and can be unsettling for them as they learn, this can lead to them showing their emotional vulnerability by communicating with you the only way they know how, by crying.
During this time it is important to make sure that your baby feels supported and reassured so that they are able to deal with the emotions they feel when important people in their lives are no longer in sight. Try to avoid getting frustrated as this will not help you or the child, it is about being sensitive and patient to the baby’s needs at this stage.
If your baby starts to display signs of separation anxiety you can gradually build their confidence and understanding. Start by minimising the times when you need to get up and leave the room without them, and always offer reassurance on your return. Initially avoid times when they most are likely to need emotional support, for example when they are hungry, tired or in a new environment. In the short term you might need to try to get jobs done when they are asleep or have another adult with them when you leave the room to offer reassurance.
It can be helpful to think of how we as adults can rely on each other when in unfamiliar environments or when feeling emotionally vulnerable. For example when you go to a party you will often want to sit with people you know. With this in mind, imagine what it might be like for your baby when you go to a new soft play or toddler group, they are put down in an environment that is strange, with new sounds, smells and people; they need our reassurance to feel confident in this new environment before they can start to have fun.
So, it isn’t “Please don’t leave me” it’s more “ Please stay close to me and please don’t leave me until I’m ready ” – it’s all about anticipating and responding to our babies needs in different situations and remembering how we ourselves might feel in uncertain surroundings without our friends and family close by.
Early Years Consultant at Norland College