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Your baby screams and clings to you, wild-eyed, as if your leaving means instant peril. And in his mind, it does. “A baby doesn’t have the conceptual ability to trust that we’ll always return, so he protects our disappearance as if it’s a life-threatening event,” explains child psychologist Laura Markham, Ph.D. “His DNA programs him as if he’s living in the Stone Age; he doesn’t know he’s perfectly safe at day care. To him, when you walk out the door, he could be eaten by tigers.”
Markham, who is the founder of ahaparenting.com, says separation anxiety usually begins to manifest by about 7 months of age; most babies are in the throes of it by 1 year. Here’s what you can do to help your child (and you) through this phase:
From the day he’s born, respond promptly to your baby’s needs and cries; doing so will make him more confident in your love, and therefore more able to develop self-soothing skills. This, in turn, will help him deal with the stress of separation more easily. “Research shows that babies develop the neural pathways necessary to soothe themselves if they are comforted when they cry and dependably have their needs met by their parents,” Markham says.
Activities such as peekaboo and hide-and-seek teach your child about object constancy: Even though he can’t see something, it still exists, and it always comes back. (Just like you do.) Markham also recommends these books: Audrey Penn’s The Kissing Hand (Tanglewood Press); Mama Always Comes Home (HarperTrophy) by Brooke Dyer and Karma Wilson; and Kathi Appelt’s Oh My Baby, Little One (Voyager Books).
Chances are your child understands more than you think. So tell him that you’re taking him to day-care and that Miss Sheila will be there to hold him when you leave; also tell him about the fun things he can look forward to throughout the day. Before you leave, tell him when you’ll be back, whether after his nap or at the end of the day. Reassure him that you will be back— that you always come back.
Having something familiar to hold on to, such as a small blanket or stuffed animal, may ease the stress of you walking out the door.
It will only makes things worse in the long run, Markham says. Put on a smile (despite your breaking heart) and reassure him that everything will be just fine. And it will.