Separation Anxiety IS Anxiety!
Many parents know the feeling the first time they put the baby down in the crib and she cries miserably when you leave the room. I certainly remember this with my boys. This usually happens by 9 months of age. The reason separation anxiety happens at around this age has to do with a perfectly normal, and in fact desirable phase of development that all babies pass through. There’s a fairly simple way to manage it.
In Part I, I described anxiety as being, at its core, fear of losing a loved one. For little ones trying to go to sleep, the loved one is the cherished caregiver, usually mom.
The scenario usually works out like this: You’ve had a wonderful bedtime routine with your 9-month old (could be younger though.) You had a fun bath. Feeding/nursing went really well. You put the little one sleepy (but awake!) down in the crib. Maybe you sing, give a brief massage, say prayers, etc. and say good night. A few minutes later you hear whimpering escalating in to full-on crying. If your baby is starting to babble, she may even be going “ma-ma-ma-ma-MA”. It breaks your heart. This is separation anxiety in action.
Why is this happening?
As heartbreaking as this scene is, it’s actually cause for celebration! Why? Because it means the baby has accomplished a very important developmental advance: she’s acquired object permanence. This is nothing more than the understanding that things exist independent of the baby’s ability to see, hear, or touch them. Don’t all people know this? Prior to about 9 months, no, they don’t. Prior to this time, the psychologists say that a baby’s world-view is dominated by a thing called “solipsism“, the belief that nothing exists outside oneself. In other words, out of sight, out of mind. Imagine a world ruled by solipsism… On the other hand, don’t imagine that world!
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Then, at around 9 months, things begin to change. The baby understands that mom still exists when she leaves the room. And this means…
The baby can get mom to come back!
Once mom goes, the baby isn’t really sure she’s going to go away forever. This is where the fear of loss kicks in and the baby becomes distressed. If you’ve heard the heartbreaking cries of separation anxiety, chances are you went back in to the baby and reassured her that you’re still there.
Yes, but over and over?
But the cycle repeats! And it can continue to repeat ad infinitum if you let it. If the baby understands that mom continues to exist after she leaves the room, why doesn’t the baby relax and fall asleep, content with the knowledge that mom will always be there?
This is a funny little quirk that babies have. It’s what I call an underdeveloped “damper effect”. What’s a damper effect? It’s the tendency of responses to decrease, or dampen, after repeated stimuli.
Here’s an example: If I tell you a funny joke you will probably laugh. If I then immediately tell the joke again, you may chuckle a little. By the third or fourth re-telling, you probably aren’t laughing any more. The joke is still funny, but you’ve dampened your humor response.
Babies don’t dampen their responses. Think of the jack-in-the-box. The baby is surprised and laughs every time the clown jumps out. But she did that 20 seconds ago. And she’s going to do it again in 20 seconds when it happens again. It never stops being funny for them.
It’s the same way with separation anxiety. The damper effect explains why the baby doesn’t “get it” right away that mom hasn’t gone forever. That’s a developmental stage that won’t take place for many more months.
How to overcome the damper effect
It’s natural for the baby to feel the fear of loss when mom leaves the room, and it’s difficult for that feeling to dampen, so she needs help managing her anxiety.
The trick is to help baby bridge the gap between being with mom and not being with mom. That bridge is what we call a “transitional object” or a “comfort object”. A transitional object is simply a thing that helps the baby transition between being with a caregiver and being alone. The transitional object can be doll, a toy, or a small blanket (not so large that the baby can suffocate!) These objects are often the first thing that a baby “owns”. It turns out that many of these objects remain with people for years, sometimes lifetimes. I gave my “transitional object” (a piglet doll) to my first son. I was in my 30s when I did this.
Managing separation anxiety
- Rely on a transitional object. If you haven’t introduced a toy or other item to her by 9 months, this is a good time to do it.
- Words or melodies can work as transitional objects as well. I sang “Our Love is Here to Stay” in place of a transitional object for one of my boys. It worked like a charm!
- Keep a consistent, predictable bed-time ritual, with or without a transitional object. Consistency works!