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Separation Anxiety

Q. My husband and I get a sitter and go out for a few hours once a week. Our 7-month-old cries from the time we leave him until we come home. This has been going on for three months. Why is he so unhappy with others? Will this difficulty affect his development?

A. Anxiety about strangers and separation is perfectly normal toward the end of a child's first year. There's a range in ages at which this begins, and your son could have started quite early, as it seems he's been resisting your departures for some time. He may also be, temperamentally, someone who has difficulty with separations. This doesn't mean that you'll never be able to leave his side; you'll just have to set up separations with more care. And contrary to having a negative impact on his development, if you're able to help him through these tough times, you'll actually be helping him develop strategies that he can use as he grows older.

Most babies stop crying soon after their parents leave. In part, this is because their cries are an attempt to protest the separation, and once you're gone, there's no need to keep it up.

Your son's difficulty settling suggests that the sitter may not be able to help him calm down. If you're using the same sitter every week, you may need to re-assess the situation. Your sitter may be a wonderful person, perhaps even a much-loved relative, but he or she may not be right for your son at this stage of his life. If this is the latest in a series of sitters, your son may just need more time to get to know him or her.

Does your son also have difficulty when you're out of view in general, such as when you leave him alone in his crib? If so, you could try playing little games with him when you're home to help him realize that you'll always return. Games like peek-a-boo help with this, or disappearing around a corner or behind a counter and then reappearing (with a happy "Here I am!"). You can do this with toys, too. Drop a toy into a container, then retrieve it, or cover a doll with a blanket and then uncover it.

Spend a little extra time before you leave with both the caregiver and your baby. Start by just talking with her while you hold him. Then shift gradually to an activity involving the three of you. At some point, structure a departure moment: for example, you could say, "After we finish this story, I'm going bye-bye, but I'll be back soon." He may not understand the words now, but saying them is a good habit to get into because it gives him some sense of control and predictability.

Go when you say you will. Don't linger, and try to remain positive as you're going, so he doesn't pick up on your ambivalence. Avoid abrupt transitions, and never sneak out.

If you can, shorten your outings for a few weeks and then gradually increase the time you're away, so he can learn that you'll always come back. As your child grows older, you can try leaving something "important" with him  -- like an extra set of keys from your purse  -- to help him understand that you will return.

Most children outgrow their intense separation difficulties by kindergarten. I can think of two boys I know (one of whom was my son) who cried through each separation during infancy and toddlerhood while their peers were happily waving bye-bye, and both handle separations with ease today. For the few who don't, there are specialists to help the children and their families, but your son is way too young for you to be thinking about that.