It seems like just a few months ago we could have left our little one with anyone, and she would be content. As long as her needs were met, as long as she was held, warm and had a full tummy, everything would have been just fine. So what happened? Here are the developmental stages responsible for separation anxiety in babies and toddlers, and tips on how to make life happier and easier for everyone.
Separation anxiety in babies and toddlers is sometimes thought to handle; our little ones are much more clingy than they used to be, much more eager for our proximity, would only accept their needs to be met by us, will wake up more frequently at night, and generally – will make life a bit harder for a few months. All this candy will usually be served next to a the main dish of unsolicited parenting advice, with our loved ones telling us it is time to let the little one cry it out, learn independence, and other abilities our little ones are nowhere close to. Here is a stage by stage explanation on our babies’ development and the actually amazing reasons for separation anxiety.
5 Months: Distinctiveness and Individuality
You just made it through the four months sleep regression, and have hopefully managed to sleep for a few nights, and then this comes 🙂
The first wave of separation anxiety usually washes our parenting shores around 5 months of age. Our little ones gain a huge understanding and take their first step towards independence – they realize they are separate human beings. Until this age, babies experience their life as a symbiotic dyad with their main caregivers, usually the moms though 🙂 All their needs are met and they are happy and content as when in our presence. They celebrate the natural dependency between themselves and their parents.
When our little ones understand that they are actually separate human beings, they also understand that we are separate human beings, and if so – we can leave. This idea, of leaving, of being left alone and deprived from the one attachment they cherish so badly, is a brand new idea that is, as you can imagine – terrifying.
At this age babies begin to understand that falling asleep is a form of separation, and bedtime becomes more challenging as letting go of the attachment is very hard on the little ones. We, adults, already have the understanding that night time is a temporary separation, and that, with God’s will, we will meet again in the morning. Lacking the feeling and understanding of time, babies don’t yet know that. For them, to go to sleep is to let go of the attachment. Imagine how unsettling this might feel.
What can we do to help our babies cope with separation anxiety?
Everyone around us seem to claim that 5 months is the best age to start sleep training, they tell stories of developed Melatonin levels and the need to learn independence. All of this is simply not correct. Given all said above, imagine how a little baby feels, left alone at the peek of his anxiety. It’s the coming true of all nightmares.
- Sensual Proximity is probably the best tip. Let’s be as close to our little loves as possible; carry them (a good carrier is a must), let them hold to our clothes that have our scent on them, and simply – just be with them. Hold them close and cherish their attachment to you until they are ready to let go themselves, until they understand that being an individual human being is wonderful, until their individuality and distinctiveness from us is reached independently (meaning they depend of us for their independence).
- Same tips go for night time, this is anything but a period for separation. Co-sleep in whatever (safe) method that suits you, bed sharing or a close bassinet – whatever works for you, as long as your little one is not left alone. During bedtime, work on all senses – touch, sing or talk, let your little one see and smell you and of course – breastfeed if you are breastfeeding.
- If you’re using a night lamp, try to stop using it. It will better affect your little ones sleeping cycles and work for the understanding of day and night.
7-8 Months: Object Permanence
After learning that they are separate human being, our almost-toddler 8 months old gain another massive understanding called object permanence, when they realize that if they can’t see an object it doesn’t mean that it doesn’t exist. Prior to this realization, separation was somewhat of a binary understanding: you are here, I love you/ you are gone and you will never return. Now, it gains depth: you are here, I love you / you left, I don’t know where you are and if and when will you return. As you can imagine, this, too, is terrifying.
Of all senses, the sense of smell works wonders during this period; try walking around with the little one’s pajama some time before putting it on him, so that he will sense your smell when falling asleep. Your bed will always be preferred because it is the place that smells most like you and makes him feel safe and secure.
There are no special tips in addition to the previous ones with this development; just remember that if it is hard on your little one to let go, it means that you are doing everything right. Don’t listen to anyone around you telling you that your little one is clingy, spoiled, exhibiting bad habits and that you are the one to blame for it all.
Not at all – you are the one to thank for creating a secure attachment with your little love, who is behaving EXACTLY the way he is supposed to behave.
9 Months: Object Permanence, Now Permanent
This is the last developmental stage having to do with the symbiosis between the baby and caregiver, as of now on development will shift towards the child’s understanding of the world and his personal stance in it. If you are here, it means that you did great and you only have a little more of this, before you move onto the next challenge.
Independence is Asking for Help
Independence can’t be taught, it can’t be forced. If it is – it is not independence, it is a freeze-fight-flight mode triggered by our little ones’ survival instincts. Any and all fear-driven learning processes are not beneficial and teach our little ones not to come for our help, because we just won’t be there for them.
When we think of independent toddlers, children and even adults, we imagine individuals who are not afraid to try new things, who face up to challenges, who strive to succeed; these individuals can only grow to be such if they learn to ask for help, if help is granted to them, if they grow up learning the world is a safe place.
It all starts now. Let’s be there for them, let’s raise this new generation to treat the world, and the individuals on it, differently. Because we already know where fear-driven learning lead us to.
Join my Facebook group right here and tell me about your experience with separation anxiety. I’m sure we’ll have new tips and tricks to share and make life happier and easier for all of you 🙂