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Written by Lavinia
Certified Paediatric Sleep Consultant
6 April 2021

Pointers in Dealing with Separation Anxiety

If you're reading this, you may have a baby or child who has started to completely flip their lids whenever you are not around.

The thought process, it would appear is one of Mummy/Daddy is not in the room. So they must be somewhere else. I want to be with them. So make that happen, or I will make the most monumental ruckus.

And that ruckus leaves parents to wonder "Is this normal, or are we doing something wrong?"

After all, a well-adjusted kid should be able to function reasonably well away from mum and dad for a short time. Right? After all, your Mummy friends have shared how their babies/children are happy playing independently.

There are two things to remember.

First, it's important to remember that not to compare your baby to others. Each baby is unique. Things aren't always as pretty as it seems, as people present the best possible versions of their lives on social media platforms like Facebook and Instagram.

And second, it is healthy for a child to be attached to his mother or father, and the parent and child bond should be expected and respected.

So then, what is it?

At around 6-8 months of age, your child may experience separation anxiety, as he or she begins to understand that things exist even when they are not visible. Understanding that things exist even when we can't see them, is an important mental milestone called "object permanence."

As a result, your infant will soon realise that you, their most beloved person in the world, are not always present. And hold on a sec. You might not return if that's the case. A baby's reaction to this realisation is understandably panicked. You can hardly expect an infant to take it with great decorum when the thought of a parent leaving and not returning causes anxiety in most adults I know.

So, that's what's going on in your child's head when they throw a tantrum every time you leave the room. This behaviour is indicative of your child's healthy development and secure attachment to you as a parent. Awesome!

However, as many of us are well aware, this also makes leaving them with a babysitter or at day care challenging.

If your child is throwing a tantrum every time you leave the room or have to leave, I have some ideas to help you get through this phase.

1. Address it directly

Instead of taking the easy way out and being your child's constant companion until they turn seven, encourage them to learn about separation and reunion as early as possible. Allow them to express their sadness at your departure and reassure them that you will return. It's fine if there are a few tears around this. It is important for them to accept this concept.

2. Set a Good Example

Your child will do as you do, so if you aren't comfortable with her being alone, they may subconsciously fear being in a room without you. Set aside some space for them to play and explore without your constant watchful eye. The change is subtle, but it is effective.

3: Ease into It

When your child shows signs of understanding that they will be spending time with someone other than a parent, leave for short while and come back. I wouldn't plan on going out for a movie just yet.

4. Leave baby with someone she knows

Kids do slightly better when left with a grandparent or family friend with whom they have spent some time and grown to trust a little.

5. Don't Leave Right Away

Expect to wait around for at least half an hour after the arrival of the person watching your child. Your child will feel more at ease seeing your interactions with that person, knowing that this is someone they can trust, because you know and trust them.

6. Don't sneak out

Many of us have tried to leave the house without saying goodbye to our young children, in the hope of avoiding the tearful goodbye. Your child may cry when you leave, but it's important for him or her to know that you'll always come back when you say you will.

7. Have a goodbye routine

A consistent, predictable goodbye routine aids your child in recognising and accepting the situation, just as a bedtime routine does. The ideal good-bye routine has is  short and reassuring, with set number of kisses and hugs, a catchphrase and a clear indication of when you will be coming back.

8. Speak in a way that your child will understand

Tell them when you'll be back by reference to their schedule, rather than how long you'll be gone. This is because "I'll be gone for 2 hours" may not mean much to your child as he may not understand how long 2 hours is. But if you say "I will be back after your dinner" this may be understood better by him.

There's no way to prevent your child from showing some sadness when you leave, but you can certainly lessen the drama.

It's important to note that the techniques presented here are intended for children with everyday separation anxiety. If you think your child may be suffering from Separation Anxiety Disorder, which is a more severe form of separation anxiety, you should take him or her to the paediatrician for evaluation.

However, these suggestions should help significantly with the more common problem of the child getting upset whenever the parent attempts to leave the house for more than an hour or two. Maintain consistency, supportiveness and calm. And before long, your child will grasp the idea that you will be leaving and returning.

Article written by Lavinia
Certified Paediatric Sleep Consultant
Based in Singapore
Trained in the Sleep Sense Program

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