By Vicki Thrasher Cronin
Licensed Parent Educator, Pre-K Teacher
Today, the research and science of early development provides us with clear evidence that babies are competent, engaged partners in their learning. For, example, research tells us that not only do babies have feelings right from the start, they are also learning about your feelings. There is a powerful connection between you and your baby; you could think of it as an invisible umbilical cord.
During the first nine months of life your baby’s job is to form a secure, trusting relationship with his primary caregivers; his parents and even another caregiver. There are several developmental milestones that will tell you that you have succeed in becoming this very special person: the arrival of stranger awareness and separation anxiety. At about 5 or 6 months you may notice that your baby is wary of and may even refuse to be held by strangers. Your baby may screech if someone they don’t know gets in his space. Around 9 months your baby will screech if you disappear around the corner or leave the home and clearly protests if you leave him.
Don’t worry, this too shall pass and your baby will expand his world to include many others. However, for now, understand that you need to be thoughtful about people walking into your baby’s space. It will be helpful if you are intentional about greeting people when they arrive. Provide hugs or other overt actions like hand shakes to show your baby that this person is ok with you. Introduce your baby, and suggest that the “stranger” provide a smile and hello from a distance. Your baby’s temperament will also play a role in how quickly your baby warms up to new people. You’ll quickly get a feel for what works best for your baby.
Separation anxiety begins around nine months, builds and peaks at about 12 months, then begins to wane and is usually resolved by 18 months, though it may return later! Separation anxiety is one of those human development issues that reoccurs through out our life time at points of major transitions. You can probably remember several of those life-transitions which have caused you pause: such as going to kindergarten, starting middle school, high school or college or getting married!
The experience of separation anxiety from nine to 18 months is your baby’s expression of his heightened awareness of the importance of your mutual relationship. Your baby is now keenly aware that you are the base of his security, his sense of well being and his future success. Your baby’s fear of losing you and his efforts to keep you near are an integral part of his (and species) survival. Good thing he’s so cute, eh?
Now that you know that separation anxiety is normal and will need to be outgrown, you can be a key to helping your child learn coping skills for successful separation. The resolution of separation anxiety is a life long process and the skills your child learns now will help him in the future. Many parents have found it helpful to leave a “piece of themselves” behind with their child. These transition objects might be a set of keys (put old keys on a key chain and keep them with your stuff so your child will identify them as yours), a purse, a coat or shirt. It just needs to be something your child believes important enough that he is reassured that for sure you will be coming back.
Your child may also benefit by taking favorite lovies from home with him on any outing or visit. Rest assured, your child will not go off to kindergarten with his blanket; it might be a small, smooth rock in his pocket or a Hershey’s kiss in his lunch that will be the connection to home that will get him through those early weeks at school (or college, or a new city or…).
Put yourself in your child’s shoes. How do you cope with new situations, stressful moments? What strategies have you learned to cope with separation? Now, take a few moments and re-make the strategies to fit your little one.