Handle baby's stranger & separation anxiety

Saying "Goodbye, I’ll be back!"

As your baby grows and begins to make sense of the world, they are slowly learning and assimilating more information about people around them. They will begin smiling at familiar faces and can even pick your voice out in a crowd. With this new development comes an unpleasant one too.

You will notice your previously smiling and happy-to-be-held baby suddenly freeze up and turn clingy and perhaps even sobbing uncontrollably. This behaviour is called Stranger Anxiety or Separation Anxiety. These are perfectly normal emotional developmental milestones for baby to hit. These behaviours are nature’s way of ensuring your baby is safe and well taken care of. Though the behaviour displayed may be the same there is a difference between the two.

Stranger anxiety vs Separation anxiety

Stranger anxiety is what baby feels when they meet/come face to face with or are left in the care of someone unfamiliar. This could even mean people in your extended family whom baby may have not seen much. Separation anxiety is what baby feels when they are away from you or any primary caregiver. This distress can occur when you are not in the same room as them or if they cannot see/hear you. Maternity leave usually lasts for around 6 months so the development of stranger anxiety and mom’s return to work unfortunately coincide.

Leaving your baby sobbing and crying for you as you turn to head to work is the stuff of maternal nightmares. So here is what you can do to help baby (and yourself!) through this tough phase.

Prepping a new caregiver

Pic source: Babycenter India

Image courtesy: Babycenter India

If you are planning to head back to work in a few weeks and leave baby with another caregiver, then have that person spend some time with you and baby from a few weeks beforehand. Play together with baby, have them change diapers, etc so your baby will begin to recognise and understand that this new person is a safe person to be with.

Manage expectations

Whether you’re leaving baby in the hands of a grandparent, nanny, or a daycare teacher, manage expectations. Let them know what baby is going through and the strategy you have adopted for dealing with this. If possible, co-create a strategy with them on what to do when saying goodbye, when baby cries later, etc.

Introduce a comfort object

Familiarise baby with a plush toy or a blankie that they can use to comfort themselves with. Something they can carry to daycare or have around them all the time at home. Ensure you meet baby’s concerns by talking to them in a soft, comforting voice and telling them you will be back soon. Teach them about object permanence by playing games like peek-a-boo where you appear from behind a pillow or have baby find their favourite toy from under a blanket, to reinforce the fact that you may go away from a little while but you will always be back. 

Keep calm & parent on

Most of all, be patient and calm. It is tough for baby to understand that mom needs to be away from them and they will take time to process this. Be prepared for loads of tears on their part and feelings of guilt on yours. But remember it does get better and this phase too will pass!

October 15, 2020 — Rati Girish

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