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side view of African-American 9 month old baby crying and looking off to the side

Separation Anxiety in a 9 Month Old

By Amalah

Greetings Amy,

I am the proud grandma of a 9-month-old granddaughter. She is going through the “stranger danger” phase. My husband and I will be taking care of her for several hours this weekend while her mom and dad participate in the Spartan (obstacle race.) Do you have any suggestions how the grandparents can calm her separation anxiety while they are away?

Thank you, 
S

I’m assuming that you and your husband don’t actually fall into the “stranger” category, and the good news is that for most 9 month olds, the hardest part of their separation anxiety is the act of separation itself. That moment when it dawns on them that their parent is leaving and they must do everything in their little power to keep them from leaving. Crying, tears, arms reaching out, panicked flailing….you know, all the Sad Things That Make Your Heart Hurt.

But once the separation is over and the parent is fully out of sight, all the theatrics tend to wind themselves down on their own.

So the key here is not what happens while her parents are away, exactly, but how you handle the actual moment of separation.  Here’s some advice: 

1. You want to keep it short and sweet.

Don’t make a big deal over the goodbyes — because they aren’t a big deal, Mom and Dad will only be gone for a few hours — and she’ll quickly pick up on any cues from you guys that suggest otherwise. (Think multiple weepy goodbye kisses and reassurances using words she doesn’t understand, handing her back to Mom over and over to get her to stop crying, etc. — this will only prolong the anxiety.) If the adults around her are making a Big Honking Deal about the babysitting hand-off, she’ll quite naturally think it IS a big deal and worthy of all the big screaming/crying/panic guns in her arsenal.

2. Plan to start earlier than scheduled to warm up…

If possible, have them all arrive a little early (if you’re watching her at your house). Have some newish-to-her toys out and ready for her. Let her explore the toys while her parents are still there, but just…in the room, not actively engaged with her. (If she’s super clingy and they need to start on the floor with her that’s fine. Just have them fade out to a nearby chair once she finds something interesting.) If you’re watching her at their place, I’d just show up and start blending into the background furniture as to not set off any “oh uh who are these people this is different” alarm bells (i.e. don’t immediately ask to hold her or get up in her face.)  Arriving right at a meal/snack time can be helpful too, since food is a nice distraction and a high chair can be a familiar, natural physical separator from Mom and Dad’s arms.

3. Then Mom and Dad need to just go.

Like a Band-Aid. Even if she cries. No coming back for one more kiss and confusing the situation — if she sees them, she’s going to cry for them. If they come back, even temporarily, she’ll know that crying works and continue to cry until it works again. And again. That’s normal and okay and not a sign that she’s really in unbearable distress. Crying is still her primary form of communication.

Typically, once the preferred adults are actually gone, the crying will stop. Maybe in fits and starts, as she’ll probably forget and then remember that you and Grandpa aren’t Mom and Dad and hey, she’s still not super thrilled about it.

4. Stay cheerful and calm.

And, don’t overwhelm her with a million new things. (“YOU WANT THIS TOY? NO? HOW ABOUT THIS ONE? A BOTTLE? PEEK A BOO? LET’S SING A SONG!”) Babies are little sponges who absorb everything — including any hints you give off that you’re stressed out or making a big deal about this temporary parent-less arrangement.

5. Keep everything as low-key and routine as you can.

Other than keeping the initial separation short and sweet, that’s really all you can do at this super-young age.  Don’t take it personally if she does continue to cry and doesn’t “want” you at first (not that I think you would…you’re obviously in tune that this is just a super-normal phase babies go through!). It’ll be over and Mom and Dad will be back before she knows it!

And remember that this is a good thing for her. It’s wonderful bonding time with you guys (who are not strangers) and also a gentle, necessary lesson in “Mom and Dad leave sometimes but they always come back.”

Photo source: Depositphotos/londondeposit

More Baby and Separation Advice from Alpha Mom:

1. Separation Anxiety: Soothing or Spoiling?
2. Leaving You
3. The Un-United Front

Amalah
About the Author

Amy Corbett Storch

Amalah

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 Ama...

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 [email protected].

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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