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Ask Dr. Sears: Potential Separation Anxiety

Q  My 10-month-old daughter has started to really cry and fuss when I put her down for her naps. I know she's tired and wants to sleep - could this be a form of separation anxiety?

A Absolutely, since the prime time for separation anxiety in a baby's life is between 7 months and 12 months of age. Developmentally speaking, you can consider separation anxiety to be a built-in survival mechanism for a growing infant.

In the second half of the first year babies begin to develop the motor skills of crawling and walking, which enable them to move farther away from their caregivers. But separation anxiety keeps them safely connected so they don't move too far; it's as if their body says "go" but their mind says "stay." Also, a young baby doesn't have what's called "person permanence," which, in plain language means "out of sight, out of mind." So when your infant can't see you, to her you don't exist. Between 1 and 2 years of age, an infant develops the ability to carry a mental picture of you in her mind even when you are out of her sight; this in turn helps her separate with less anxiety. Don't misinterpret separation anxiety as your child being overly attached or dependent, or spoiled. In fact, it's just the opposite. The most securely connected infants during the first year often become the most independent toddlers.

That said, there are ways to ease your baby into independence at naptime without anxiety:

Nap with your baby This clingy stage will last only a few more months, so take the opportunity to reconnect with your daughter. Whenever possible, resist the temptation to "finally get something done" during her naps. When you lay down with her she's not only getting much-needed sleep, but you're giving yourself a little extra rest, too. Establish a predictable naptime routine such as 11:00 in the morning and 3:00 in the afternoon.

Set the scene for napping While you can't force a baby to go to sleep, you can establish conditions that allow sleep to easily overtake her. Try to time her morning and afternoon feedings just before her naps. If you're breastfeeding, cuddle next to her and nurse her off to sleep. If you're bottlefeeding, cuddle and rock her along to some soft music. Once she falls into a deep sleep you can then put her into her crib and slip away.

There are other ways to ease separation anxiety in general. First, when you're about to leave your baby and when you return to her, use your voice, facial expressions, and body language to communicate that you are not anxious when you're away from her. The more connected a mother and infant are, the more a baby can read her mother's anxiety. Suppose, for example, that your daughter is playing on the floor in the kitchen and when you start to walk away she fusses. Instead of immediately scooping her up, turn toward her, put on a happy face and make contact with her using your voice, but not by touch. Your calm facial expression gives your baby the message that she can handle this situation. If she believes you are ready for her to separate from you, she will soon get the picture. Similarly, if you're in another room and you hear her start to cry, instead of immediately rushing to her, make voice contact by "Mommy's here!" This helps her begin to develop person permanence and realize you're there even though she can't see you. Playing hide-and-seek also plants your image in her mind even when you are out of sight.