Being a parent is the most rewarding job in the world; it can be however the most difficult. Every new job that you have ever started always came with some form of training manual or ‘hand over.’ There is no manual on how to be a parent though. There are indeed many books out there with lots of differences of opinion, and in the end we have to do what we think is right for ourselves and our child. What works for one, may not work for another.
There is a variety of information out there for us to read and gain knowledge from, and lots of people to ask for advice, but we can’t do all of it. What we shouldn’t be doing though is comparing ourselves to others and feeling like we may not be doing something right.
As a child sleep consultant, I see many parents comparing their babies who aren’t sleeping well to those who are. There can be a variety of reasons that one baby may sleep better than the other, but be rest assured that your baby can also sleep well; you just have to guide and support them through it. You never do anything wrong, but there are always ways to change things if you feel things need to change.
This blog isn’t directly about sleep issues, but separation anxiety can sometimes appear when changes in sleep habits are being introduced as most of the time this involves asking our children to do something they have never done before; go to sleep by themselves. If you have never experienced separation anxiety with your child, you are very lucky, but it will come at some point, I’m sure. It’s a very challenging and difficult part of a child’s life where they get very upset and worried every time they are not close to the ones they know and love. It can happen at different stages of a child’s life, and it can appear when you least expect it, but what we have to remember is that it is real, and there are ways to make it easier for them.
Separation anxiety is a completely normal and expected behavior, usually evident in children for the first time between 6 and 8 months old. Around this age your child really starts to realize and understand that things continue to exist, even when they’re not in sight. It’s actually a cognitive milestone known as “object permanence” which is defined as, “the understanding that objects continue to exist even when they cannot be observed.” In other words, out of sight no longer means out of mind.
When your baby is going through this new understanding, they also start to understand that they can see someone once and may never see that person again. When they aren’t attached to this person in any way it doesn’t make them upset to leave. However, when mum or dad leave, it can cause babies to experience separation anxiety as, in their little minds, they may not see you again! It’s normal, it’s natural, and it’s a sign that your little one is learning. It also shows they have a secure attachment to their parent, which is something we would never want to break. It does however usually start causing us issues when we do indeed have to leave our children, and as a mum myself, it is upsetting to hear your baby cry because they are worried you aren’t going to come back. This could be something as small as going to the bathroom, leaving your 6 month old on the floor playing with his favorite toy, or it could be something as big as leaving them at daycare or with a babysitter.
Remember, children can experience separation anxiety a few different times whilst they are young; another common one is when they start school. Instead of asking yourself ‘why does this happen?’ let me tell you a few ways how you can help this if it is becoming quite a serious issue.
1. Show Them the Way
Your baby will usually follow your cues and the way you behave, so if you’re quite attached to them, and not allowing yourself to pop out of the room every now and then, your child may feel like they’re not safe if you’re not in the room. What’s the solution? Try and designate a safe and baby proof room where your child can explore without your direct supervision and pop out and put the kettle on and take a trip to the toilet. It’s only a small adjustment, but you will teach your baby that he is OK without you, and it will also help any anxiety you have about leaving your child for a few minutes.
2. Stop Avoiding it
Due to being such an important milestone, your child needs to learn about separation and reunion so please don’t avoid leaving them. Let them know that it’s okay for them to get upset when you leave and reassure them that you’ll always come back. If there are some tears around it, that’s alright, you will most likely have some tears too. It really is an important concept that they need to understand, and we as parents also need to feel OK with someone else taking care of our children as most of us need to go back to work.
3. Start with Someone Familiar and Start Slowly
Children usually do a little better when they are left with someone they’ve already spent some time with; whether that be grandma, or a neighbor; someone they have seen a lot and who they have grown to ‘know.’ Usually we are inundated with friends and family members offering to babysit for us in the beginning so accept with open arms and plan to spend at least an hour away from the house for the first few attempts. After the first few times then you can start to increase the time away from your child you are spending. You will probably find your child starts to create a new bond with that person and start having fun!
4. Stick Around
When who ever is going to be taking care of your child arrives, or you arrive at their home, don’t say goodbye as soon as possible. Stay for a bit, have a laugh and a play together, and your child will see that you trust and like this person which will be of comfort to them.
5. Say Goodbye
If you only take one tip away from reading this blog, please take away this one; always say goodbye! Most of us can say that we have tried to distract our babies and toddlers before in order for us to enable us to sneak out of the door without having to say goodbye. However, this can lead to more issues if your child realizes you have gone without saying goodbye. Even if the goodbye provokes some tears, it’s important for your child to understand that you’re going to leave sometimes, and more importantly, that you’ll be back when you say you will. So please, always say goodbye.
6. Set a Routine
Children love routines, so why not create another routine, just like at bedtime, to help your child recognize the situation and accept it much easier. Maybe you could have a set number of kisses and hugs, tell them a memorable key phrase, and always give them a clear indication of when you’ll be back. Never skip a step of the routine as it may make your child more unhappy (ie, always say goodbye even if they are engaged in an activity without you).
7. Speak in Terms They’ll Understand
Telling your 6, 18, or 24 month old that you will be back in 3 hours doesn’t mean anything to them, so tell them him when you will be back in regards to his daily schedule. Whether that be after his nap, after his lunch, after his dinner, or before bath, whenever it may be, talk to them in a language that they hear from you a lot (nap, lunch, bedtime, bath time, book time, etc). Nothing is going to prevent your child from getting a little bit upset when you leave but you can definitely keep the fuss to a minimum and help reassure them that you will be coming back.
If you are consistent, calm and supportive during any episodes of separation anxiety, you will start to see them before a lot more comfortable with you leaving as they will remember that you are indeed going to come back.