By Erin Downey
When my 2 1/2-year-old daughter started daycare this winter, I was prepared for tears. To help, my mom offered to watch my 10-month-old son. Why cart him along on a cold day, we thought; he’d be better off at home. But Ben had a different idea. He protested more forcefully than his daycare-bound big sis, and suddenly his dear Nana could do nothing right. He screamed and reached
desperately for the front door after I left and stopped the instant he was back in my arms. Subzero temperatures seemed humane in comparison, so every day I carted both kids to daycare.
Not being able to separate left me with some major anxiety. So why did my easygoing infant suddenly turn into a cling-on? Experts say this is nothing new. Dr. Katrina Haka-Ikse, a developmental-behaviour pediatrician from Toronto, explains: “The beginnings of separation anxiety exist from day one. Because the senses of touch and smell provide necessary familiarities, a baby as young as two months may cry if her caregiver is not accessible.”
But when baby’s sight improves at around six months, that’s when separation anxiety usually begins in earnest. It kicks into high gear around 10 months, when your infant realizes that objects and people continue to exist even when they’re out of sight—that you are actually a separate person who, disconcertingly, isn’t attached to her after all! A baby’s limited experience has taught her that she can make things reappear by searching or crying. So when Mom and Dad—her most important people—don’t come back immediately or can’t be found, she panics.
Those tears while you’re trying make your exit can be pretty hard to take, but they’re actually a sign of your baby’s healthy attachment to you. “This is what teaches children who to trust, who to listen to later on,” says Dr. Haka-Ikse.
So when you have to go back to work or just run an errand, try not to let the crying get you down. Dr. Debby Lake, a clinical psychologist at the Infant and Preschool Clinic in Saskatoon says, “The best thing you can do is be very matter of fact about leaving.”
Easier said than done, right? Here are some things Dr. Lake says you should keep in mind.
1. Put baby in training
Whenever possible, let your little one experience new people and places in baby steps. Start slowly and work up to longer periods when you’re away. Play games like peek-a-boo to show you come back.
2. Don’t push
What do psychologists do when they need to make friends with an infant? “I will have them sit on their mommy or daddy’s lap while I talk with the parent,” says Dr. Lake. “Then I will pass a toy to the parent, and let them give it to the baby. This makes babies think, “If Mom thinks this is OK, then it must be.”
3. Talk it over
It may sound silly, but tell your baby what you’re doing. “Babies cry when they think we haven’t got their message,” says Dr. Lake. “Having the feeling acknowledged does help.”
4. Put it into perspective
As tough as it is for us to accept, it’s important for children to have sad moments, even as babies. “Little bits of stress are good for kids to experience. It is like an inoculation,” says Dr. Lake. “If they learn to handle little stresses, then they have the skills if a bigger stress comes along.”
5. Relax about the future
Because your baby is anxious now doesn’t mean he always will be. “This is part of the healthy cognitive development of infants,” says Dr. Lake. “It’s more to do with the stage than personality.”
Separation anxiety generally passes by 15 months. But if it continues, says Dr. Lake, don’t assume you’re being manipulated. “If a teenager cries before getting on a plane to Europe without you, she could be experiencing a form of separation anxiety.” So if your child continues to have a tough time, stay confident and tell her it’s OK to be sad. After all, doesn’t saying goodbye make you a little sad, too, sometimes?
TIP: DON’T FRET IF THEY’RE MAKING STRANGE
Anxiety doesn’t just centre around Mom or Dad leaving at this stage. “Fears of new toys, high places and, of course, people are common,” says Saskatoon psychologist Dr. Debby Lake. “In my practice I’ve discovered that a child can be fine with me, but when I put on my glasses it may all go out the window.” So if your baby balks at Uncle Neil’s beard or the babysitter’s goth makeup, just keep in mind that she simply hasn’t seen anyone who looks like that before.
Erin Downey lives in Montreal with her two children and is taking baby steps toward leaving Ben alone with his Nana again.