Separation Anxiety and Object Permanence


My 9-month-old is having a problem with separation anxiety. I have been taking him to day care at my gym for an hour every day, and no matter what we do he cries the entire time I am gone. I am worried because I'm starting medical school in a month and he will have to go to day care every day. What can I do to help him along?

Dr. Greene`s Answer:

Separation anxiety coincides with a new intellectual skill called object permanence–the ability to remember objects and specific people that are not present. Your baby can now call up mental pictures of you when you are not there.

Babies learn about people leaving before they learn about people returning. Your son can tell from your actions and from the environment that you are getting ready to leave, and his anxiety starts to build. 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. So, once children have learned about leaving, you want them to learn about returning. Separation/return games and short practice separations are quite helpful. The classic separation/return games are peek-a-boo and “Where’s the baby?” Also, transitional objects such as blankets or stuffed animals are a healthy way to minimize separation anxiety.

When you take him to day care, good-byes should be brief, affectionate, and with a clear statement that you will be back. If the caregiver can engage your child with a toy or mirror, it can make your leaving easier. If you are leaving your child at a day-care center, or someplace other than home, the separation will be easier if you spend a few minutes there with your child (and also with the new caregiver).

I know that separation anxiety can make parents feels awful, but know that separation anxiety is a normal stage of development for healthy, secure babies.

Last medical review on: September 27, 2008
About the Author
Photo of Alan Greene MD
Dr. Greene is a practicing physician, author, national and international TEDx speaker, and global health advocate. He is a graduate of Princeton University and University of California San Francisco.
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