Many years ago, my wife, Martha, and I noticed that when our son Matthew—then 8 months old—crawled around the room, he'd look up every few minutes to see if we were still there. If he couldn't see us, or if we tried to leave, he'd become upset. Matthew was our sixth child, so we'd long since learned that babies do what they do for a reason. We concluded that his separation anxiety was kind of a safety check: As much as he was enjoying his newfound ability to move around without our help, mentally and emotionally he was still very dependent on mom and dad. In other words, his body said go, but his mind said no. And that's a good thing, because otherwise he'd have just kept on going!
During the second half of their first year, babies begin a developmental process I call "hatching," in which they start to realize there's a whole world out there apart from mom. Baby's understanding of himself evolves from "Mommy and I are one" to "I'm different from Mommy" to "I'm an individual." Besides the intellectual desire to be "me," he begins to develop the motor and language skills that allow him to do things on his own.
But in order to achieve healthy independence, baby must first feel secure that his parents are there to care for him. The baby who misses the close connection of "Mommy and I are one" likely will find it harder to move into the "me" stage, and if pushed to give up his natural, healthy dependence on his parents too early, he could easily become a clingy, insecure baby.
Free to be "me"
I once had a first-time parent, Christie, who confessed that she was concerned about her daughter, Madison: "She cries every time I walk into the next room. I can't seem to leave without her getting upset. She used to warm up to anyone, but now she clings to me whenever a stranger approaches. Have I made her too dependent on me?" I reassured Christie that her baby was most likely experiencing separation and stranger anxiety, a normal phase that most babies go through toward the end of their first year.
But as Christie and I talked, I noticed something. As Madison crawled around my office, she'd periodically stop and glance over at her mother for reassurance. Within a millisecond, Christie would lunge for Madison and scoop her up. Baby's anxiety triggered mom's anxiety, reinforcing baby's fussiness and creating one anxious pair.
This is the case especially when a baby is very attached to mom and can read her body language. I explained to Christie that her response was giving Madison the message that there really was something to worry about, so I advised her not to get spooked at Madison's every peep, but to convey a "no problem" attitude. The next time Madison fussed, Christie turned toward her with a relaxed, happy face, and then quickly resumed our conversation. She was amazed that Madison settled down and resumed playing on her own.
One of the myths about separation anxiety is that it's caused by mothers who are too attached to their babies. This is a carryover from the 1920s-era spoiling theory, which maintained that holding a baby a lot, feeding on cue and responding to her cries would create a clingy, dependent child. But Martha and I have come to believe that attachment fosters independence, not dependence. Babies who are the most connected early on have such strong trust in their parents that calm reassurance from mom and dad gives them the comfort to try new things or explore unfamiliar territory, knowing that help will be there if they need it.
Raising a strong, confident, self-sufficient child won't happen in a day, of course, or even in a few months. But forging a strong bond of trust with your baby makes you the perfect coach to ease him through his natural fear of separation. It may seem a bit hard at first, but soon you'll find opportunities every day to help your little one become his own person.
In becoming independent, it's normal for babies to regress, even as they make progress. Baby wants and needs to separate, but he's not certain how soon to do this or how far to go. So he constantly tests the waters to find his comfort zone: clinging tightly to you one minute, crawling happily away the next. At this stage, just go with the flow. Hold him when he needs to be held and let go when he wants to be on his own.
It's your first night out in months, and the babysitter arrives promptly at 7 p.m. As she gets down on the floor to greet your little one, baby rushes toward you, crawls up your leg and clings to you like a little koala. To keep this scenario from preventing your ever having a night to yourself, try a new approach. Prepare the sitter in advance that baby is going through some stranger anxiety. When she arrives, greet her with your best "happy to see you" face so that baby is reassured that you're okay with this person and there's no need to be anxious. But don't rush out the door immediately! Spend some time with baby and the sitter before you leave, so that baby no longer sees the sitter as a total stranger barging into his personal space, but as someone you—and he—can relate to and trust.
When I see a new baby in my office, I notice that the baby's reaction to me mirrors the mother's. A fearful mother anxiously whispering "He won't hurt you," reinforces any apprehension the baby might have, causing him to cling tighter. But the mom who relaxes her grip and starts an easy conversation with me gives baby the message that I'm "mom-approved," helping him feel more comfortable and be more cooperative.
Don't take it personally
Some babies are more sensitive to separation than others; it's a matter of temperament. Laid-back babies seem to play alone more easily and warm up to strangers more quickly, while babies with more intense personalities seem to cling longer and separate more slowly. Both are absolutely normal. All you can do is pay attention to how your baby reacts to new situations and respond appropriately. Just don't confuse the treatment for the condition: You're holding him because he's slow to warm up to strangers; he's not slow to warm up because you hold him.A strong attachment figure, whether it's a parent or a familiar trusted caregiver, can give baby the confidence to explore further. As soon as she becomes comfortable on one level, she moves to the next. Step by step she'll climb each rung toward independence—checking to be sure that you're right there, holding the ladder.