Like many young babies, Rebecca was happy to be held by just about anyone.
But both her parents, Sally and Matthew, were well aware that this stage would pass once Rebecca developed the fear of strangers that all babies do.This is the time when a baby gradually realises that her mother is someone who can leave her and this realisation causes her distress.
“We were both quite prepared for her to start distrusting people she had once been perfectly happy to go to. We expected it and tried to prepare for it,” explains Sally.
But what the couple did not expect was that around the time Rebecca reached this stage, she could not bear her parents to leave her alone at any point at all – even at night. “She would scream and scream every night when we put her to bed. Going to bed was fine; she just didn’t want us to leave her.”
Anxiety setting in
Sally thinks the reason Rebecca became so clingy was that she developed very bad colic when she was just nine weeks old and the only way either she or Matthew could comfort their distressed baby was to hold her closely and let her fall asleep in their arms.
“I think she got used to it and wanted us with her all the time, long after she grew out of her colic. We thought it would get better as she grew older but instead, it just seemed to get worse. She wouldn’t let us leave her at all.”
Worse than imagined
When Rebecca was seven months old, Sally returned to work full time, as the head of department at a secondary school, and Matthew stayed home to care for their child. “That didn’t present us with any major problems; she’s just as strongly attached to him as she is to me.
But occasionally Matthew would get the odd day’s work and he’d have to leave her with a childminder. On these
days she would just scream and scream. She couldn’t bear for either of us to leave her, even for a few minutes. It was absolutely heartbreaking and because we couldn’t leave her at night either, it was exhausting and frustrating.”
Sally and Matthew tried sleep training, gradually leaving Rebecca for longer and longer periods of time at night to get her used to the idea of going to bed without them. But she would cry constantly once they left the room, almost as if she didn’t believe they existed anymore if she couldn’t see them.
Back to normal
“Then out of the blue, just before her second birthday, she actually told me to go,” said Sally. “It was as if she’d finally worked it out in her head. She said, ‘Mommy downstairs, Daddy downstairs, Becca upstairs.’ And I said, ‘That’s right.’ And she nodded, quite happy. That was several months ago and she’s been just fine ever since.”
What was going on?
All babies go through what the experts call separation anxiety. Sally was well aware this would happen, but it doesn’t make it any easier.
“You worry you’re doing something wrong. I knew that babies reach a certain age when you can’t just give them to anyone and they need you and become distressed if they can’t see you. I knew this was normal and that it would be more worrying if Rebecca didn’t go through this stage. But it’s still very hard. You think they’re never going to grow out of it.”
Developmental psychologist Dr Elizabeth Meins of Durham University in the UK specialises in infant-mother attachment and she agrees that it’s a very positive step once your infant starts to distinguish between you and other adults and separation anxiety sets in.
“This stage usually starts at around nine months when your child may show signs of being more clingy and less settled; less willing to be left with other adults, even people she was quite happy to be with before.”
Why does this happen?
“At this stage babies aren’t developed enough to realise that if someone leaves a room, they’ll return. It’s the same with objects. If your baby reaches for something and you cover it up, she assumes it’s not there anymore. Babies live totally in the present. They have no concept of future or past,” Dr Meins continues.
So when Sally and Matthew went downstairs after putting Rebecca to bed, Rebecca assumed they no longer existed and she needed them to constantly return to her just to reassure her. Although all babies go through this stage, it can be more traumatic for some than others. Sally thinks Rebecca’s colic in the first few months may have contributed to her clinginess.
“She’s a very sociable child and would mix with other children quite happily, but only so long as either Matthew or I were in the room and she could see us. If we left, she’d get very distressed. But she’s a lot better now and seems to accept that if we go, we do come back.”
All about routine
A disruption of routine distresses babies. This is because, compared to other mammals, humans are born remarkably helpless so we have to have very good coping mechanisms to deal with this and ensure our survival.
A routine is comforting to babies because it gives them a sense of safety in a world which is, to them, very hostile. Rebecca eventually accepted that her parents would leave her because they stuck rigidly to a routine so that she would feel secure and comforted.
However, it’s not always possible to stick to a routine. If you have to return to work, if you and your partner separate, if one of you has to work away from home for any period or go into hospital for a prolonged stay, this can increase your baby’s fear of abandonment.
She fears being abandoned because, as an infant, she is so totally dependent on others that abandonment threatens her survival. Bear in mind that babies need much more than food and shelter to survive; they need human contact.
“At this age, under two, little and often is much better than prolonged visits which only happen every now and then,” says Dr Meins. Divorce and separation are a fact of life and the time just after the birth of a child, especially the first child, is a time when couples face their greatest strain and quite a number separate. But you can make this easier for your baby if you ensure she sees both parents as much as possible.
If either of you has to be away from your child for some time and it isn’t possible to see her, she will cope with this stage so long as there is someone there that she can attach to.
So it’s always a good idea if you or your partner are away that your baby has at least one other adult she regularly sees, such as, say, a grandparent. This will help ease the strain for the remaining parent.
Off to work
Returning to work, often at a time when your baby is beginning to go through separation anxiety, can make life hard for mother and baby. But there are ways to make it easier. Dr Meins suggests planning ahead. “Try to introduce your baby to her childminder before you return to work. If she already knows her, she’ll get used to the idea of being left with her.
“Another way is to keep leaving the room for very short periods of time and keep returning. She’ll gradually accept that mom is someone who goes away but also comes back.”
Babies also make this difficult transition easier for themselves by becoming attached to a particular object or piece of material which acts, quite literally for them, as a security blanket. What they’re doing is carrying around something familiar that reminds them of you.
Dr Meins says it’s not a bad idea to encourage your infant to have a transitional object. “Anything that helps them through this is to be encouraged. It’s vital to be sensitive to your baby and her needs. Even when she’s very young she’s still a little person with feelings, ideas and a mind of her own.”
A unique reaction
Despite their very young age, babies do display very different temperaments and so there will be wide variations in the way your baby handles separation from you. Some are very shy and need to stay close to you as much as they can, other children are sociable and outgoing and want to play with other toddlers.
If a child is very clingy, parents often blame themselves and think they’re doing something wrong. But chances are, it’s just the way she is. Just as some adults are more outgoing than others, so are babies. And they do understand us, long before they can speak, says Dr Meins.
“So it’s important not to betray their trust. It will help both of you if you establish patterns and stick to them, as Sally and Matthew did. The more secure she feels, the more likely she is to attach to other adults, such as grandparents and childminders, which will make all your lives much easier.”
Be guided by baby
So we need to listen to our children and try to be guided by them and their fears. Although it’s very hard for us to imagine what is going on in their little minds, we were all babies once and we were all scared of being left alone. We even have these feeling occasionally as adults.
If you can try to see this from your baby’s viewpoint, it will make this stage easier for you and her to deal with. The good news is that once your baby has started to show signs of anxiety at being separated from you, she’s actually reached a crucial stage of her development, one that will help her survive and negotiate her way in the world, so the tears are really worth it.
Your baby is built for survival
“It’s not for nothing that babies smile a lot. They do this because it brings out an instinctive sense of protection in us,” adds Dr Meins. So even when you can’t be with your baby, you can be sure she’ll probably be doing her best to make sure someone else looks out for her – it’s a built in protective mechanism.
Despite their incredible helplessness, babies are born with survival skills. So while it may break your heart to leave your crying baby, she does have the ability to cope because she can make attachments to others around her.