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Ask Dr. Sears:

Q. My 6-month-old can't stand to be away from me. I'm a stay-at-home mom, so I'm with her constantly, but the downside is that as a result, my daughter gets terribly upset every time I leave her with my in-laws. What can I do to help her adjust to being with other people when I'm not around?

A.
Please don't take your daughter's clinginess personally: Her behavior, though exhausting at times, actually reflects a positive character trait that may even have some protective benefits. "Separation anxiety" commonly peaks when a baby begins to develop motor skills such as crawling and walking. I believe that separation anxiety happens when baby has the motor skills to move away from her trusted caregivers, but does not yet have the mental capabilities to handle separating from home base. In other words, in a baby's normal developmental timetable, the body is saying, "Go forward and explore," while the mind is saying, "Not so fast, or you may get into trouble!"

In clinical studies, as well as my in own observations over the years, babies who seem the most dependent early on often turn out to be the most securely independent as they get older. During the 1970s, researchers Dr. Bell and Dr. Ainsworth of Johns Hopkins University studied two groups of parent-infant pairs. One group was defined as "securely attached," much like you and your baby. The other group was more restrained in parenting style, with the babies not being held as often, and cues not being responded to as quickly and directly. The researchers followed these groups on into toddlerhood, and found that the more securely attached infants actually grew up to be more independent.

New insights into infant development continue to show that deep and early attachments are healthy. It's necessary for a baby to first go through a normal stage of dependency on mom or dad in order to form intimate, lasting relationships as an adult. By continuously being there for your daughter, you have been setting a foundation for her to form deep connections that she will benefit from the rest of her life.

Now that you understand why your baby might not want to leave your side, here are a few ways you can help her comfortably ease into the next developmental stage of independence:

Separate slowly. Start to give your daughter short controlled periods of separation from you. If you're busy in the kitchen, put her down, and let her crawl around within your sight. If she fusses to be picked up, first make eye contact and talk to her, giving her the message that she's okay to be on her own for a while, before taking her in your arms. The next step is to connect with her when you are out of her sight. Of course, you are not likely to leave a 6-month-old on her own for very long; set her down to crawl in a safe place  -- such as the living room with the entrances gated off. When she begins to get fussy, don't rush to her right away. Instead, make voice contact: Say, "Mama's here..." Give her about 30 to 60 seconds of vocal comforting before you physically go to her. Proceed gradually with this process, depending on how she responds. If she settles down after hearing your voice, then try giving her a little more time apart.

The point is to introduce a delay in your responses to your baby's fussiness while reinforcing the idea that she is okay on her own. Remember, babies are very perceptive of adults' anxiety. If you seem anxious about putting her down and letting her explore away from you, she's likely to sense that and respond in kind. Keep repeating the message that she's safe and she'll eventually believe it.

Ease her into strangers. It's normal for your baby to cling to you in the presence of a stranger. I often experience this when parents bring their baby into my office for the first time. At the beginning of the appointment, I'll make brief eye contact with the child, but then I immediately engage in a conversation with the parents, all the while ignoring the baby. The baby watches the interaction between his parents and myself, and once he perceives that I'm a parent-approved person, the child will cling less to them and let me examine him. You can use this same technique when leaving your daughter with her grandparents (or other caregivers). Explain to them in advance that she is going through a clingy phase  -- and that this is normal. Although it may be difficult for them, ask them to back off initially, and not rush to hold your daughter or relate to her. Instead, carry on a dialogue with your in-laws while you are holding your baby so she can see how much fun you're having chatting with them. When she gets that they're okay in your eyes, she's likely to warm up to them.

Since she's at the age (between 6 and 9 months) when babies discover the fun of waving "Hi," and "Bye," you can also prompt her to wave "Hi" to Grandma. Planting these social gestures into her receptive mind will help increase her comfort level with whomever she's greeting.

Play independence games. A developmental reason for separation anxiety is the concept "person permanence," meaning if your baby can't see you, she doesn't yet have the mental capability to imagine you exist. Simply put, for your 6-month-old, out of sight is out of mind. Between 12 and 18 months, your baby will develop person permanence and have the capability of knowing you still exist, even when she can't see you. Games like peek-a-boo or hide-and-seek ease this process along a bit. If she is at the stage where she knows how to crawl, play with sounding: Hide behind the couch and call her by name several times. As she moves toward the direction of the sound, she is learning to make a mental match between the missing person  -- "Mom"  -- and the voice she's hearing.

Above all, don't feel that your daughter's separation anxiety is your fault; your strong attachment to her isn't the cause, or even a problem! Try these independence-inspiring techniques, and you will find that your baby will soon be exploring the world on her own, without fear.

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