Make Your Clingy Baby Confident
Tips to help mom and dad instill confidence in their babies, and banish infant separation anxiety for good.
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.