Separation anxiety is a normal stage for kids to go through. It starts around 6 months and usually tapers off around 2 years old. During these months a baby is first gaining the cognitive recognition that you still exist when you are not there, which means baby can now miss you when you are not there. The problem often intensifies because at the same time baby realizes that her primary source of food and comfort can leave her, she is also testing the ways in which she is an individual. That's scary! A lot of separation anxiety is about finding that fine line between growing more independent and at some level still knowing she is fully dependent on you for survival.
Keep Calm and Carry On
The best tip for helping to calm your child is to stay calm yourself. Trust that this is a stage and that it will pass. Trust that your child can thrive with someone who is not you. Projecting confidence that baby will be just fine whether with Grandma, Aunty or your favorite babysitter, will help a lot.
Be Clear and Transparent
It might seem best to sneak out when your child is busy or distracted--and that might help the separation that first time--but it is basically a break in trust. It is much better to help your cild anticipate the separation. Tell her, "Mommy and Daddy are going out to dinner tonight together, and you are staying here with Mary." Remind her the good times she has had with Mary before and outline for her what Mary is going to do with her while you are gone ("You'll have some play time before dinner, and then you'll have pasta and broccoli--your favorite! After dinner you will take a bath and play some more. By bedtime, Mommy and Daddy will be home to read you your stories and tuck you in.")
As Your Child Develops Language, Get Her Help Brainstorming
Even a very young child can indicate her wishes non-verbally. As you prepare to leave your child and are setting the table for dinner, you might ask, "Do you want your red cup or your blue cup when Mommy is gone?" Help your child engage her imagination about how she is going to act when you are gone: "Are you going to show Mary how you sip your water without spilling or are you going to use your straw?" This helps her to focus on positive behavior she can display.
Prime the Pump
Before you leave your child with others, carve out close, cosy one-on-one time. Get down on the floor and play with your daughter. Let her take the lead. If Special Time is part of your family routine, make sure you have some the day you are separating or the day before. The more full her emotional cup is, the more your child will be able to handle your leaving.
If your child is really struggling with separation anxiety, first remind yourself that this is a stage. She won't cling forever. Your reassurance that all children feel this way sometime and that it will get easier will reassure her and you (Say this to her even if she is pre-verbal. Remember, a child's understanding is developing long before her expressive vocabulary. You never know what she understands).
Give your child the best chance at success by planning to be away from her when she is at her most rested and energetic. Although having a meal can give child and sitter something to focus on, if your child is too upset to eat, that will just throw things off even more. Rather than waiting to leave your child when you have to go, find some practice times when she is most happy to play and leave for a shorter time. Consider leaving a special activity that only gets done when Mommy and Daddy are away. Make this practice a routine and see if you can extend the amount of time you are gone bit by bit. Leaving at the same time every day or week might also help as slowly your child will get an understanding of time concepts. As she does, your assurance that you will be back before nap time or for afternoon snack, will mean more and more to her which will enable her to keep herself together for a longer time.
Keep Departures Short and Sweet
Of course, you know your child best, but in general, I have found that when parents prolong the good-byes, that just gives the child hope that maybe she can keep you there. If you can be warmly matter of fact that, say, when the timer goes Mommy and Daddy are going to give you a big hug and walk out the door. Then when that timer goes off, make sure you do just that.
Keep Your Child's Personality in Mind
Some kids feel things more intensely. Some kids need to fully understand things in order to accept them fully. These kids will just need more time. It will just take them longer to learn to trust that you always do come back. Your confidence that the day will come when they are happy to let you go will give you more energy and patience while your child works through this very natural, if trying stage.