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Baby Steps: "Mommy, Don't Go!"

Q. Lately, whenever I walk out of the room and my 7-month-old son can't see me, he just cries and cries. I can't do anything around the house unless I take him with me. At first I suspected teething because he just got his first two teeth at the same time, but he seemed to handle that pretty well. I'm a stay-at-home mom so I'm with him every day, and this is wearing me out. What's going on with him?

A.
Welcome to the separation-anxiety stage, which can be as stressful for the parent as it is for the child. Separation anxiety usually begins at around 7 to 9 months of age but can appear any time up until about 18 months, when babies acquire the understanding that what they can't see is still there (a concept called "object permanence"). Basically, your son does not yet realize that you continue to exist when he can't see you, but he does realize that he needs you nearby for his safety and comfort, so he protests every time you aren't in view.

You can't really prevent separation anxiety (it's one of those hardwired things that probably helped babies survive when we were hunters and gatherers), although some babies experience it more strongly than others. The best you can do is remind yourself that this is a phase that will eventually pass. You can also help your son learn that you are still around even when he can't see you.

It's helpful that you are able to be with him a lot right now, since this isn't the best time to go on a child-free weekend or to start him in daycare. It's also not a good time to put him through cry-it-out sleep training. Instead, challenging as this stage is, try to be extra understanding. His fear is real, and forcing him to separate from you now won't help him get over it faster, since he isn't ready yet. Remember, he has no sense of time and no concept of where you've gone, so when you leave for a minute he is just as terrified by your departure as if you'd left for days.

One thing that some moms do during this phase is "wear" their babies, either in a front carrier or a sling, which enables them to get things done around the house without leaving the baby behind. For babies who are beginning to get mobile, however, this can feel confining, and for babies who are getting heavy, it can become uncomfortable for mom, but wearing your son for short periods of time during the day is certainly something you can consider adding to your arsenal.

This Too, Shall Pass

One mom I know has a collection of baby seats distributed around her house -- a bouncy seat in the bathroom, a play station in the kitchen -- so that her daughter gets variety and she has different places to deposit her as she goes about her business. You can even include your son as a "helper" in the activities -- give him some plastic plates while you do the dishes, a pile of socks while you do the laundry, or a toy computer when you answer your e-mail. You can also just try to keep favorite toys in various rooms to occupy your son.

Since your son feels like you're disappearing when he can't see you, help him to use his other senses to feel your presence. Start a song before you have to leave the room, sing it loudly the whole time you are out of the room, and come back in singing, too. Over time, this may help him to know that you're still around even when you aren't in sight.

You can also try establishing a little ritual for when you need to leave the room -- a stock phrase, like "I'll be right back!" -- and then another phrase for when you return ("Here I am!"), so he can start to understand that separations have clear beginnings and endings. Other such rituals include giving your baby something to hold while you are gone, whether it's a comfort blanket or something that is uniquely yours, such as your favorite sweatshirt.

Never say "I'll be right back" if you won't be -- to gain his trust, you need to be honest. Similarly, don't sneak out of the room when he isn't looking; he'll become even more worried that you may slip away at any time. If he knows when you're going, he'll feel less anxious when you are present.

Likewise, when he stays quiet and busy during one of your brief departures to another room, don't take advantage of the situation to get one more thing done, much as you may want to. Return while he's still calm so he understands that you went away and came back, even without his tears. If you wait to return until he gets upset, then the message is lost; he won't remember that he tolerated your absence -- he'll only remember the distress.

In general, play games with your son that reinforce the concept of object permanence to help him cope with your absences. Any activity that involves disappearing and reappearing will do the trick: Put a toy under a pillow and then pick up the pillow or drop a ball into a bag and then reach in and pull it out. These games teach your son that hidden items continue to exist. The arrival of object-permanence understanding doesn't mean, however, that your son will happily see you off -- he will still, most likely, protest if you leave him with a new babysitter, for example -- but it does mean that he will let you out of his sight sometimes.

Remember that this phase will pass. Until then, revel in the excuse to be with him a bit more -- he'll be a scampering toddler before you know it, and you may find yourself wistfully recalling his demands to stay together all the time.

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