Separation Anxiety

What is separation anxiety?

I will be talking about “normal” (ugh what a horrible word) separation anxiety that develops in children from about 7-8 months old. We’re also going to be looking at this in a nursery/day care setting to see what we can do to help your little ones not feel the stress of separation anxiety.

At the age of 7-8 months, as part of your baby’s development, they will have now reached a phase called “object permanence”. This is just a fancy way of saying babies starting to notice when things or people are there or not. This could be why your baby, who was previously comfortable veing held by grandma, is now not happy. As this is a transition phase for babies, it is most likely that you will see marked improvement when you practice leaving and coming back.

Going to nursery

Let’s look at your child being in their separation anxiety phase when their nursery journey begins. When parents come to me looking to enrol their child at the age of 7-9 months, I am very clear with them that their child’s adaptation program will probably take more time than they may have anticipated. I have even encouraged parents to wait until this developmental milestone has been passed before starting a nursery program.

I have also sometimes suggest having a nanny at home to ease this transition; this will help your baby by only changing the person/people before also changing their surroundings.

This isn’t always ideal so let’s look at what we can do as parents and caregivers to make this time easier for your child; here are some things I’ve had success with in the past:

What can we do to make separating easier?

  • Parents being present during adaptation – at one school, I initiated an adaptation period during the summer time where parents could come to the class with their children. Parents could spend time with the teachers and other parents, and allow their child to get used to the environment. This school didn’t allow parents in the classroom once term time started in September but, in comparison to the year before, adaptations went much more quickly and smoothly. Help your baby by showing them you’re comfortable and that they needn’t be scared.
  • Don’t linger when saying goodbye – once you and your baby are ready to part make sure your goodbye is quick and as painless as possible. I know this is hard, but, by making sure you say goodbye, and then leaving promptly, your baby will be able to understand the situation more quickly. If you go back into the classroom to comfort your baby, though your intentions are good, you are teaching your baby that you’ll come back if they cry. Why not ask for support from your baby’s teacher or facility director at this time?
  • Give your baby a comforting item – I always suggest that parents bring a comforting toy or blanket (once I had a child who had a luminous yellow travel neck pillow to comfort him). The familiar smell or feel and even sound of this item can soothe your baby. At this time their sensory awareness is developed enough to associate items with comfort. I nannied for a baby of 11 months about 7 years ago and her comfort was super unique! Mummy would wear her t-shirt, then give it to the baby before sticking it in the washing basket, trading every day. Her child was very comforted by this and would seek it out when she was feeling tired, hungry or cranky.

Other ideas on smooth transitions can be found in my post about adaptation and many of them relate to this topic. Click here to go to that post.

Starting early

Although it may be controversial, having babies start at nursery at an age before they are aware of changes in people or places can help. At three or four months old, babies have not yet developed object permanence so transitions can be easier.

Your baby, at three months, is already taking in so much new information. Changes in environment and introductions to new people can be a mere hiccup at this stage, rather than a big change.

Of the children I’ve known not to cry during their adaptation – and there have been very few – they are mainly young babies. As long as they feel loved, are fed and have enough sleep, I have found that they “adapt” with relative ease.

Anxiety developing later

Now let’s move onto what happens when separation anxiety develops while your child is already at nursery. Maybe your baby has attended nursery for a while and they are very settled and now they have started to cry because there is a new caregiver. There is nothing wrong with this either and you shouldn’t be worried that something has changed at your baby’s day care/nursery.

Understandably, you may be worried that this new person doesn’t know your baby or what will happen if their favourite teacher isn’t there one day. As always, I encourage you to ask: “how are you supporting my baby getting used to this new person?”. The nursery staff should help your baby get used to new people by introducing them slowly.

Asking this question will make you feel a lot better too. It is so important that you feel comfortable! Remember, your child feels your energy, so if you are anxious about the separation, your child will feel this too.

Just remember, this isn’t forever, you’re not awful for taking your little one to nursery, this is just a milestone that your baby is reaching and should be looked at as a positive thing! They are growing, learning and they are developing!

How was your experience with separation anxiety? What helped you at this time? I’d love to hear your thoughts and feedback on what worked!

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