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Separation Anxiety: Soothing or Spoiling?

Nov22

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Hi Amy!

My 8 month old son Isaac has recently started having some pretty serious separation anxiety. Totally normal, just a phase. I’m not worried about him. But yet, I still don’t know what to do, you know?

I first started seeing signs of it when he was a little over six-months old. I went from being home full-time, to nannying two other boys a few days a week at their house. I bring Isaac along, which is such an awesome situation. He gets socialization with other kids and fun new toys to play with. Most days he loves it. But sometimes, especially when he’s tired or doesn’t feel well, he cries for me and wants me to hold him constantly. He might be fine if I’m sitting next to him playing, but if he gets the slightest inkling that I’m getting up, he starts wailing. And he doesn’t stop until I pick him up. I’m dealing with this ok, but I’m wondering if it’s causing more anxiety in other settings.

Just recently he’s doing this same kind of thing whenever anyone else is with us. My mom stayed over for a night last week. If I was holding him and she was a few feet away, he would smile and giggle at her. Come closer or God forbid try to hold him and you would have thought she stuck him with a hot poker! He’s a little better with my husband. Daddy can hold him for a few minutes before the crying starts and he reaches out his arms to me.

When it’s just the two of us he’s fine and content to play by himself as long as he can see me. He also seems to be ok with other people if I’m not there. My husband can take him to the park or to run errands and they have a grand old time. My mom watched him so we could go out to dinner and he calmed down shortly after we left and was mostly in a good mood for the hour or so before she put him to bed. We had a hilarious episode in the grocery store while she was visiting. He started crying when his grandma went to push the cart. So she would take him up and down different aisles and I would sneak up behind the cart and put items in. I was like a grocery store ninja! He was content unless he caught sight of me or heard my voice. Then the tears would start again.

I know this is bothering my husband a lot – it’s one thing to cry for a grandmother you see once a month, but he’s been there every day. And until this started, he was the go-to person to make the baby laugh (he even had him laughing right after getting shots at the doctor!) I hear that this is normal, but how do I respond? Am I spoiling him if I always take him when he cries for me? Or am I teaching him that I’m there for him and he can trust me? Is the nannying maybe causing this to be worse than it otherwise would be? I want him to bond with other people too (with a minimum of hysterical crying!) I’m just not sure the best way to help him get there.

Thanks in advance.

This one almost feels like cheating, because your very first paragraph basically says everything there is to say about separation anxiety at this age. But whatever, my 8-year-old is home sick for the SECOND time this week with his SECOND stomach-related ailment and we’re out of coffee and I’m losing my mind and in no shape to tackle anything super challenging.

So yes. This is a very, very normal phase. And yes, it’s likely that you’re going to be dealing with his anxiety and clinginess for a few more months, at least. Eight to 10 months old is usually prime separation anxiety time, though for babies with severe cases it can last well past their first birthdays.

The thing is to NOT. PUSH. HIM. His fear is very, very real to him. Respect that fear and do whatever it takes to reassure him that you are not going to up and disappear on him or abandon him with someone else. You cannot — I repeat! From the mountaintops! Everybody repeat after me! — CANNOT “spoil” a baby under a year. You can, however, make separation anxiety worse or last longer by trying to force or push the issue.

From a developmental standpoint, your little guy has only just figured out that you, Mama, are a separate person. You, Mama, the person he’s come to depend on above all others for food, warmth, safety and survival. Dada makes him laugh, sure. Grandma is nice, yes. But they are not you, the one he relies on at a very primitive, evolutionary level. And that’s a terrifying realization for someone who can’t walk or talk or do much of anything for himself. It sucks to realize you’re the less-preferable parent or caretaker and it’s ALSO exhausting to be the preferred parent. But this is not anyone’s “fault.” This is not a problem to “fix.” A deeper level of bonding is absolutely in store for your son and his father and grandmother, but it’s not going to happen by you handing him over to someone and then fleeing the room, or “hiding” from him the minute he’s not looking. All that’s telling him is that HOLY CRAP I WAS RIGHT ALL MY FEARS ARE COMING TRUUUUEEEE.

And then you come back and instead of his baby-brain making the connection that “Oh. I get it. She leaves and then comes BACK,” it’s more likely that he’ll be more afraid, and thus more determined not to let you out of his sight. Or let anyone else hold him and potentially take him away from you. (And that can then lead to the super-fun-times known as “nighttime separation anxiety,” where your baby refuses to sleep unless you’re there in the room, and wakes himself up periodically to “check.” UGH.)

It’s GREAT that he is okay going places with other people, or being babysat by Grandma. SO GREAT. Some babies with severe separation anxiety can’t handle that, and will scream and cry the ENTIRE time instead of calming down shortly after you leave. My kids have all occasionally put on a big wailing/clinging show at the door when I’m about to go anywhere and leave them with Dad/Grandma/babysitter, but then it all stops shortly after I leave and they can be distracted by something else. I think this is a very healthy level of separation anxiety — enough to show their bond to you, but not so much to be a huge PITA and essentially render you their prisoner.

I wouldn’t point some big blame-y finger on your nannying gig, by the way, but I would recommend that you be very mindful that his routine isn’t being disrupted too badly there, or that you aren’t constantly triggering the anxiety by leaving him behind in rooms or anything. Does he bring any special transitional objects from home with him? Some favorite toy or lovey? (It’s okay if he doesn’t. Some kids have things like that, others don’t. So don’t feel like you need to try to force him to have one, but it might not hurt to make sure you’re bring a few familiar things with you each day.)

Do you have a good baby carrier you could keep him in when you’re trying to move around the house? I’d say get yourself an Ergo or mei tai STAT and basically wear him around whenever possible. (Perfect for the grocery store, too, by the way!) Learn to master both the front and back-carry positions and it will make this phase so much easier on you, while giving him the security and closeness he’s craving.

Carrying him on your back is especially awesome, by the way: It’s super-comfortable, gives you full use of your arms and hands, AND it will help your son get used to the idea of being with you, against you, all warm and safe…while not needing to directly see your face. Pretty soon, I bet, he’ll be happy riding on Daddy’s back as well, and not necessarily be whipping his head around to make sure Mama is in his line of sight. He’s safe, he feels good, and he’s getting a very soothing ride and interesting look at the world.

Keep reminding Dad and Grandma to not take any of this personally, because it’s not personal. This phase has absolutely no bearing on your son’s ability to bond with other people. He’s just…afraid right now. You aren’t going to make anything better by attempting to teach an 8-month-old that his fear is irrational and he just needs to man up and get over it, you know? The babysitting and Daddy/Son outings are all excellent, so keep doing those as long as he’s calming down and being generally okay with them. As long as they aren’t stressing him out, they will probably help a lot.

But don’t feel bad telling someone your son doesn’t know that you’re sorry, he’s just very shy and going through some separation anxiety, so it’s best if you keep him in your arms while they get to know each other, okay? People can be so pushy about wanting to hold babies and then get all bent out of shape and blame-y when the baby is all, HELL NO. That’s their problem. Not yours, and most definitely NOT your (totally developmentally appropriate) baby’s problem.

About the author

Amalah

http://www.amalah.com
Amalah is a pseudonym of Amy Corbett Storch. She is the author of the Advice Smackdown and Bounce Back. You can follow Amy's daily mothering adventures at Amalah. Also, it's pronounced AIM-ah-lah.

If there is a question you would like answered on the Advice Smackdown, please submit it to amyadvice@gmail.com.

Amy also documented her second pregnancy (with Ezra) in our wildly popular Weekly Pregnancy Calendar, Zero to Forty.

Amy is mother to rising first-grader Noah, preschooler Ezra, and toddler Ike.


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18 Responses to “Separation Anxiety: Soothing or Spoiling?”

  1. Chloe Nov 22 at 1:40 pm Reply Reply

    Yes, a million times yes to the baby carrier! My kiddo went through the exact same thing around the same age. I would tuck him into our ring sling and haul him, basically everywhere I went. It soothed him and left me the use of my hands – and helped to keep me sane.

    He’s now almost four and is totally fine with being separated from me – to the point where he will push me out the door when I go to work :)

  2. Cristin Nov 22 at 3:28 pm Reply Reply

    Yes! To everything Amy said. And I have one more piece of advice. Don’t do the “sneak out of the room when he’s not looking” thing. It’s temping, it’s the easy way out, but please believe me, it makes separation anxiety worse.
    I worked in the infant room of a daycare for many years and saw it a bazillion times. It actually increases baby’s anxiety for the next drop off.
    It sounds like you’re doing the right thing. It gets better!

  3. IrishCream Nov 22 at 3:29 pm Reply Reply

    Totally normal, and completely infuriating. I guess maybe it’s a little easier to be the parent your baby wants, rather than the parent who’s being temporarily rejected, but it is still hard! My youngest went through a three-month phase when she was 13-16 months (ish) during which she was not happy if she knew I was home but not with her. She could not stand to be in the other room or upstairs taking a bath with Daddy and her sister if she knew I was on the premises. It drove us all crazy. And then, pretty suddenly, it ended. It is one of those parenting things that you just have to wait out–no getting around it. 
    My MIL was very impatient when my older daughter went through this, I think because she was the first grandbaby, and perhaps because my MIL chalked it up more to our living far away than to the developmental stage. I did have to nicely tell her several times that I wasn’t going to force my screaming baby to be held by anyone else. Her feelings were a little hurt at the time, but now my oldest is three, and could not adore her grandma more. Grandma is more relaxed about it the second time around because she has some perspective on how fleeting the phase is in the grand scheme of things!

  4. Chris Nov 22 at 5:41 pm Reply Reply

    If I was in your shoes I’m sure I would be asking the same questions. But as the mama of a super SUPER independent baby who rarely wanted to cuddle, who is now a toddler who GREATLY prefers daddy at the moment (I walk into his room in the morning, excited to see him, and he says “I want daddy.” Heart=crushed.) this problem sounds kind of nice. :) Grab a carrier and enjoy the snuggles. It was the only way I got any when my kiddo was small. Good luck to you :)

  5. Ak Nov 22 at 8:18 pm Reply Reply

    Again, a giant YES to the carrier and the back carry.
    One extra little thing: when you have to leave the room while nannying or at home, don’t sneak out. Get him interested in something and say a standard phrase, something like “mommy will be back”. He will still cry but he will learn to associate the phrase with you leaving and then returning after (so the freak out is lessened).

  6. Allison Nov 22 at 9:18 pm Reply Reply

    This too shall pass, as everyone has said. Be a prisoner now and find ways to deal with having him attached to your hip, my daughter did it for a long time and now that she is two DADDY is the coolest, most sought-after person. Unlike a previous poster, however, I just cackle and enjoy my quiet time while she harasses him. ;)

    • Autumn Nov 22 at 11:22 pm Reply Reply

      We are in the middle of the 2s and Daddddeeee! is the most best person ever.  We trade off on sleeping in on the weekends, and I usually get an extra hour because I’m just boring mommy.  
      I love being boring mommy at 830 on saturday mornings.  

  7. Hermia Nov 23 at 12:53 am Reply Reply

    Mine was VELCRO BABY until she was just about 21 months old. She just wanted mama. Only mama. Despite the fact that her dad stayed home with her several days a week, she did not care. If I was home, she wanted to be with (preferably carried by) me. And then she turned a corner. And now, at 26 months, will frequently say, “Mama go ‘way.” Music to my ears. I was adamant about not forcing her out of her comfort zone, and it did pay off eventually. It’s hard on the Dad, but his day will come.

  8. Karen Nov 23 at 1:04 am Reply Reply

    Something that might help your husband is being to talk with other dads who have been through this “mama phase.” I’d pre-select some dads who aren’t insecure and arrange a family get together so they can chat. Moms have lots of chances to chat and share experiences with other moms, but dads don’t have those chances with other guys. It has helped my husband immensely to hear from other guys how normal his experiences are.

  9. KimC Nov 23 at 9:18 am Reply Reply

    Oh yeah. My oldest kid had nothing- NOTHING- for anyone but me.  She’d tolerate my mom if I was gone, she would tolerate my husband when I was completely out of the house, then bam! stuck to me like glue when I returned.  I thought my back would never recover.  Some sort of baby carrier is a great idea!  I found that they worked better for me if the weight was evenly distributed over BOTH shoulders- slings made my back hurt.

    This too shall pass.  Kid will wake up one day and you’ll be chopped liver, while dad is the bomb-pop,  I joke constantly that I give birth to ‘em and their dad takes possession before three.  (at that point, I’m totally okay with it, in the bath, drinking a glass of wine and cackling, ha)

    It is really hard on Daddy and Papa and my Pawpaw (my dad and granddad) when the baby is SCREAMING because she wants me back.  They love the kid and want her to love them and its sad when kiddo is in a NOT.THE.MAMA phase.  Patience.  Yay!

  10. Bmom Nov 23 at 9:56 am Reply Reply

    Another voice shouting YES! My daughter was reeeeallly anxious about other people (especially her grandmothers) for a long time. Like, from 3 months to age 2. Adjusting to daycare drop-offs took a couple months and some amazingly patient teachers. And then, it was like that a switch flipped. Now, at 4, people hardly believe us when we say what she was like as a baby! Shes confident and outgoing and awesome. If I do say so myself :)

  11. OP Nov 23 at 11:31 am Reply Reply

    Thanks so much for your response Amy and everyone who left comments! I have been stressing this even more as Thanksgiving approaches. I have bad dreams about passing a screaming baby from relative to relative and them refusing to give him back. Amy’s response really gave me the confidence to know that my instincts to hold and soothe him are correct and I can tell my MIL that it’s not ok to snatch him away and tell him that he’ll get over it while he cries. (Which is what happened on a visit last weekend.) Oh dear, pray for me.

    The advice about the lovey and carrier are so good I can’t believe I didn’t try them sooner. He has a little taggie blanket that he loves to sleep with, and I can absolutely bring it (or buy a second) to my nanny family’s house. AND I walk him there everyday in the Ergo using a front carry. So I already have it there! Now I just have to figure out how to do the back carry and hopefully that will soothe him during the times he wants constant contact while still allowing me to give equal attention to the other boys.

    Thanks again! It sure is nice to know that others went through the same thing. :) 

    • Kim Nov 25 at 11:36 pm Reply Reply

      The secret to the back carry is to practice, practice, practice. Do it in your bedroom so there’s somewhere safe to land, and make yourself do it every day until it gets easier.  So. Worth. It.

  12. Emily Nov 24 at 1:27 am Reply Reply

    I second all the of Amy’s advice and the comments that have been made.

    I also wanted to add that playing peek-a-boo and then moving on to hide and seek games can be very satisfying to babies at this age (and beyond). You can start by simply sitting with him and putting a scarf or blanket over our face and having him find you. If he likes that you can move on to hiding behind the couch, a doorway (etc.) briefly and then popping back out. You can talk to him the whole time while this is happening. Once he starts crawling (if he’s not already) then you can have fun with him getting to find you. This a great, fun way to introduce that concept that “when Mama goes away she still exists”.

    • Isabel Kallman
      Isabel Kallman Nov 24 at 11:50 am Reply Reply

      Yes! there was a lot of Peek-a-boo at that age with my son. with a scarf over the head and then hiding. Thanks for taking me back down memory lane! ANd of course great advice!

  13. Maree Nov 24 at 6:39 pm Reply Reply

    I second all of the above. Someone gave me some advice with my first that I found helpful and that is that this extra-clinging happens as a helpful developmental stage that keeps baby safe while they would otherwise be in a great danger. Can you imagine a newly crawling baby who didn’t care a bit where their mum was? Picture them crawling off down the street and not even looking back! This is a built in system that makes them keep you close when they are first able to move away from you and get into and climb on dangerous things. For a baby in a traditional society this is lifesaving. Baby is doing exactly what they are meant to do.

  14. Kate Nov 25 at 3:58 pm Reply Reply

    Yes, totally normal. My son would not let anyone but me (or dada, but was a definite #2) touch him around that age. One thing we did at the holidays was get a big basket of fun necklaces/beads from the thrift store. Family members would put them on, and my son would let them hold him for a minute or two, while he played with the necklace. Was long enough to soothe the aunties’ must-hold-baby impulse and snap a pic, before he realized he was behind enemy lines and started wailing.

  15. Sid Nov 28 at 3:31 pm Reply Reply

    So great to read this. My youngest has been a “not the mama” baby from very early on, and even though I know from experience that it will pass, this advice and everyone else’s tales is so very helpful right now.

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