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Baby Steps: Breaking Away

Q. Our son, Jake, was very colicky for the first three months of his life and only nursing would soothe him. As a result, I never went anywhere without him. He's almost 8 months old now, and I still can't go out alone; he screams and cries when I leave him with anyone else, even his dad. At bedtime, he cries for hours unless I put him to sleep. My husband wants to help, but he's just about given up. What can we do to fix this problem?

A.
I don't blame you for needing a break after seven months of being your baby's one and only. But clearly the strategy of letting Jake cry it out isn't working. Part of the problem is your timing. As you may know, stranger anxiety and separation anxiety often appear in babies at around

7 months. Stranger anxiety involves wariness around new people, while separation anxiety is about fear of separation from the primary caregiver, regardless of who you leave the baby with.

Jake, therefore, is feeling less comfortable around others than he may have been in the past (and will be in the future). This may not be what you want to hear, but the best strategy for now might be to wait a little while for these fears to become less intense.

After a few weeks, you can try again to go out on your own. When you do, leaving him with his dad may be a good way to start. Just go for a very short time, and make sure Jake is awake when you leave and when you return. Gradually, you can introduce another caregiver, but try to keep it to the same one or two people, and make sure that Jake has plenty of time to get to know them before he is left alone with them. Invite the caregiver to your home, where the two of you can sit and talk, and Jake can get used to her at his own pace. Let him approach her when he's ready; perhaps she can offer him a toy when she senses he's feeling comfortable.

In addition to these anxious new developments, Jake is beginning to achieve an understanding of object permanence -- the idea that something exists even when it's not in view. Some researchers believe that understanding object permanence actually contributes to separation anxiety, because knowing that you exist when he can't see you allows your baby to become distressed about your absence. Whether or not this is the case, you can use this new awareness to help Jake learn that you will return. When you are home with him, play games like peekaboo by hiding your face behind a blanket or by popping up from behind a couch. These games will help Jake understand that people who disappear will reappear, which will help him cope with your absence.

Stranger anxiety lasts about three to five months, and separation anxiety can last until well into the second year -- often until 18 months. As these phases start to wind down in intensity, you can find ways to bring Daddy into the bedtime routine so that your son learns to fall asleep more easily with him. Try putting him to bed together for a while so he becomes comfortable with the routine, then gradually withdraw from the scene. There may be some tears, but give father and son a chance -- they may surprise you.

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