Kids develop various fears as they reach different ages and stages. In babies, that fear might be rooted in a struggle to understand the concept of “object permanence,” which Dr. Alan Greene, a physician, author, speaker, and global health advocate, defines as “the ability to remember objects and specific people that are not present.” Before they grasp this concept, babies assume that things and people cease to exist just because they can’t see them.
According to What to Expect, babies develop object permanence after they learn to recognize familiar objects at around three months old and the faces of their primary caregivers at around two months old. They begin to understand this concept at around seven or eight months old, though the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) says some babies display this understanding as early as four or five months old.
Dr. Greene writes on his website that object permanence coincides with separation anxiety. “Babies learn about people leaving before they learn about people returning,” he explains. “Your son can tell from your actions and from the environment that you are getting ready to leave, and his anxiety starts to build.”
Dr. Greene continues, “Coming back, though, is different. Each day he doesn’t know when or if you will come back. As kids learn about returns, separation anxiety decreases.”
If your baby does not yet understand object permanence and cries every time you leave, one thing you can do to help him slowly learn about the concept is to play what Dr. Greene calls “separation/return games.” One common example of these is peek-a-boo. What to Expect says this game helps your child learn that you will come back when you leave, which will provide him the comfort he needs when he experiences separation anxiety. Peek-a-boo is also a wonderful way to pay attention to your baby and make him laugh!
Another thing you can do if your baby has separation anxiety is to give him a comforting touch by hugging or holding him close. Loving touches can trigger oxytocin, a hormone that can help lower your child’s stress levels and counteract whatever anxiety he feels. Touches are also a wonderful way to bond with your baby.
Remember that the time it will take for your baby to get over his separation anxiety can vary from days to months to even a year. The key is not to force him to confront his fear since he is still learning to self-soothe and dependent on others to be comforted. Instead, be patient and his anxiety will be gone in due time.