You sneak out from under the covers to make a quick toilet stop before the baby wakes. Your feet barely hit the floor when two eyes blink open and a familiar wail begins to arise. With a sigh, you pick up your little one and manage to balance her on your lap, while you pee with practiced skill.
Clasping her to your hip, you choose toast over cereal — because it’s easier to eat one-handed — before heading to the bathroom to share a quick shower. As you skip the shampoo, you ponder how long it’s been since you managed to shave your legs and underarms.
After the shower, you wrap your baby against your chest, before starting the day with the easiest task to do while wearing your baby – vacuuming around the toys on the floor.
Just another day in the life with a Velcro baby.
What causes separation anxiety in babies?
Babies go through clingy stages because it’s developmentally normal and appropriate — it’s actually a sign that your baby is making progress.
As parenting expert and author, Pinky McKay, says: “Newborns depend on close contact to adapt to the world outside the womb. Carrying your baby will not only help him feel secure but will regulate his immature heartbeat, rhythmic movements and respiration, helping to balance irregular waking, sleeping and feeding rhythms. As they grow, it is common for babies to become clingy at significant developmental stages and, just as babies have physical growth spurts, they also achieve neurological milestones such as being able to perceive distance, which typically happens at around 25 weeks.”
So, clingy behavior can simply be your baby realizing that her mother can leave her, resulting in clingy behavior. After all, you could have a one-way ticket to China for all she knows!
What is separation anxiety?
Separation anxiety in babies is a real, distressing event. In the early months of life, babies have no concept of independence, i.e. being a separate being from his or her mother. As Donald Winnicott, an English psychologist has said:
“There is no such thing as a baby, there is a baby and someone.”
See, your baby thinks that you and she are one combined being. It is the gradual realization that comes over time that her mother is an individual, separate being who can go away. This overwhelms her. Separation anxiety tends to peak around 9 months but is seen in younger – and older – babies too.
Becoming aware that your mother could leave you at any moment is a huge shock. There is only one way to prevent it: try to keep your mother in sight at all times. Suddenly, your baby is no longer happy to lie awake, play alone or even be held by dad, unless her mother is touching and looking at her. Strap on the Velcro! Where you go, the baby goes too!
4 great tips for separation anxiety in babies
So, what can you do to gently ease your baby through these important transitions?
Separation anxiety tip #1: Know that you haven’t “spoiled your baby”
Dr William Sears explains: “Attachment studies have spoiled the spoiled children theory. Researchers Drs Bell and Ainsworth at John Hopkins University studied two sets of parents and their children. Group A was attachment-parented babies. These babies were securely attached, the products of responsive parenting. Group B babies were parented in a more restrained way, with a set schedule and given a less intuitive and nurturing response to their cues. All these babies were tracked for at least a year. Which group do you think eventually turned out to be the most independent? Group A – the securely-attached babies. Researchers who have studied the effects of parenting styles on children’s later outcome have concluded, to put it simply, that the spoiled children theory is utter nonsense.”
Separation anxiety tip #2: Fussy phases are NORMAL and it too will pass!
Authors of The Wonder Weeks explain: “For 35 years, we have been studying interactions between mothers and babies. We have documented – in objective observations, from personal records, and on videotape – the times at which mothers report their babies to be ‘difficult.’ These difficult periods are usually accompanied by the three C’s: Clinginess, Crankiness, and Crying. We now know that they are the tell-tale signs of a period in which the child makes a major leap forward in his mental development.”
Separation anxiety tip #3: You can help your baby learn that it’s okay
Other developmental changes occur around the same time that is related to this awareness of being out of sight but not gone forever. Peek-a-boo becomes the best game for babies at this stage, so they comfortably see someone disappear and reappear over and over, learning this is normal and reliable.
Waving “bye-bye!” reinforces people go away, and wave hello that they return. The awareness that something out of sight still exists means looking into bags, boxes and buckets for toys – teaching baby that out of sight isn’t out of mind. Scientists call this “object permanence” and it’s an important stage of development. By playing these games with your baby, you are helping her learn to understand absence.
Separation anxiety tip #4: Carried babies cry MUCH less
What many mothers suspect is confirmed by research. In one study where carrying was increased throughout the day, (in addition to carrying which occurred during feeding and in response to crying), infants cried and fussed 43% less overall, and 51% less during the evening. Studies at Columbia University which included mothers and infants considered at risk of failing to form secure attachments showed that increased carrying led to increased maternal sensitivity, which resulted in less crying and quicker bonding.
Babywearing is a great way to help separation anxiety in babies, as well as free your arms to do other things. Learn more in our article here.
Before you know it, you will be the one worried when your baby is out of sight! Soon, your clingy baby will evolve into an adventurous toddler, ready to explore the world and all that is in it. By meeting his needs to be with you now, you are building the foundation for him to be the confident, independent child of the future.