Separation anxiety: when your chilled out baby becomes hard work

parenting rules

One day, you have the most laid back baby in the world. The next, he’s clinging to you like a koala bear and howling if you leave the room. It’s called separation anxiety, and it’s very normal. But Annie Ridout is finding it hard…

Being the second-born child, my son has never known what it’s like to have my undivided attention. Since his arrival into the world, he’s been sharing me with his theatrical, loquacious and attention-loving older sister. He adores her, and looks at her with the sweetest admiration. (Even when she’s just tripped him up on purpose.)

My son’s position has meant that he’s had to fit in to an existing family, rather than being the baby that turned us from a couple into a family. Our daughter arrived and we became three; our world ballooned into something unrecognisable – different routines, friends, activities.

This time round, we have an additional family member but everything else is already set. On the whole, he seems to accept this. He’s fairly easy-going and just fits in. And he’s generally happy being looked after by anyone – his dad, grandparents, lovely childminder. Well, until recently he was…

Separation anxiety

In the past few weeks, my son has grown increasingly clingy. He wants be picked up and carried by me at all times. If I’m sitting, he’ll clamber up onto my lap. If I’m standing, he’ll reach up to me. And he’ll cry hysterically if I ignore him. He won’t stop until he’s got his way.

If he’s left with my husband, he’ll be distracted from tears by being thrown in the air (and caught). And then he’ll happily play and ‘chatter’ and roam around. But as soon as he catches a glimpse of me, he turns crazed. He is then instantly unhappy unless he gets to me.

This means if I have to sneak out the door. Some people say a quick ‘goodbye, I’ll see you later’ is important. It teaches the baby to trust that you will leave and then come back; you’re not going to be gone forever. But for us, it simply doesn’t work – he becomes inconsolable.

The reason for separation anxiety is that as the baby learns he’s not actually attached to the mother; that he’s his own separate being, he becomes panicked. He is still wholly dependent on her – for food, comfort, company, rocking, transporting – so he grows anxious if she leaves because he’s not sure who’ll be looking out for him now.

Of course, he won’t be left alone. He’ll have his dad or childminder or grandparents. But he doesn’t know this. Until his primary caregiver leaves, that is, and he assesses the situation and works out that it’s OK – mum’s gone but he’s got a familiar caregiver to look after him.

Knowing the psychological background to this clinginess makes it slightly easier to deal with but it’s still hard for everyone involved. When my son is clinging to my hips with his legs so tightly that I don’t need to hold him – koala-style – it’s difficult to tear myself away. And it’s tough on whoever he’s being left with, when he screams for me.

But it’s a natural part of a child’s development and in time, he’ll see a pattern of me leaving and returning. When he starts to trust that he won’t be left alone, I’ll be able to say a quick goodbye before I dash off. And after that, he’ll reach the stage where he’s pleased to be left with someone else.

My daughter, who’s four in a few months, loves preschool so much that she barely even says goodbye when we drop her in the morning. She rushes in, puts her coat on the peg then seeks out one of her 40 (!) new friends to play with, with a quick behind-the-back wave, if we’re lucky.

In a few years, she’ll be desperate to walk to school alone and not have her embarrassing parents dropping her off. This is what I have to keep reminding myself of as my son howls for me and crawls at top speed to reach me wherever I am: it won’t be long until he’s not in the least bit interested.

These early years are thought to inform the rest of a person’s life. If a baby feels loved and secure in the first few years, it contributes to his later feelings of security and his ability to form lasting relationships. And separation anxiety is part of this; learning to trust that your parents will look after you, even if they’re not with you directly.

But that doesn’t mean it’s easy to deal with.

What’s your experience of separation anxiety been like? How have you dealt with leaving your child?