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Ages and Stages of Separation Anxiety

Separation anxiety is not a single, or random, event in your child’s life! It is a sign of normal development. The process actually takes place over the first few years of your child’s life, but there will be moments where it feels like the separation anxiety “peaks” and this is also very normal!

Separation anxiety is the process of your child developing “object permanence”. Object Permanence is the understanding that items and people still exist in this world, even if we cannot physically see them at that moment! This skill starts to develop at birth and will be fully developed by 2 years old!

The research on Object Permanence is owed to Jean Piaget, a developmental psychologist who extensively studied and laid the ground work for understanding this stage of development in infants.

Birth to 4 months:

Your baby has no concept of object permanence but is developing some of the foundational tools that they will need to gain this skill in the future!

This means that “out of site” is LITERATELY “out of mind” for your baby. If they drop a toy or if someone leaves the room, then they have no concept of that person or toy’s existence.

Your baby is busy developing some of the skills needed for object permanence down the road! This includes learning to use their eyes to focus and track objects and people. They will naturally become the most drawn to people’s faces and will start to become familiar with people who are closest to them.

Closer to the tail end of this stage, if an object or person disappears then you may notice that your baby continues to look where that object or person was before they move their attention elsewhere. This is the very beginning of object permanence!

Fun fact: this is why peek-a-boo is SO surprising and entertaining for babies! It’s quite literately magic. When you cover your face, you disappear from their existence! When you uncover your face, you come into existence again! It’s fascinating!

4-8 Months:

At the beginning of this stage you may notice that stranger danger has started to develop! By this age babies have become more familiar with adults who they are closest to and they may start to fuss or hide around strangers.

Babies are also starting to recognize that if an object is partially hidden then it can still exist as a whole. Looking back at our peek-a-boo example from the last stage, your baby now may understand that even if you cover up your face you are still there! You are just behind your hands!

At this age your baby will try to uncover an object that is partially hidden. Try putting your baby’s favorite toy partially under a blanket and see if they pull the toy out! Then, try putting the blanket completely over the toy and watch as they lose interest in the activity. To them, the toy doesn’t exist anymore!

8-12 months:

Welcome to your FIRST peak in separation anxiety! It’s a doozy! This peak often correlates with the 9 month sleep regression! There is a reason we can see such heightened emotions during separation around this age! Jean Piaget deemed this stage the most important for cognitive development!

Your child now understands the basic concepts of object permanence! Your child understands that if an object or person disappears, they STILL exist! AKA: You may be out of site but you are far from out of mind!

Your baby also has a few more skills that will work in correlation with separation anxiety! Your baby is beginning to grasp the concept of cause and effect. Your baby has also become very goal oriented!

You might already have concluded as to how this may impact sleep, but I’ll lay it out for you anyways! If your baby has been a great independent sleeper so far, this might seem to change! All the sudden when you leave the room your baby will scream and cry until you pick them up! For some babies this might happen from the moment you put them down in their crib or start their bedtime routine because they can now anticipate what is going to happen next.

Many parents will start to question if they should continue with independent sleep during this time. After all, the last thing we want to do is be the cause of our child’s anxiety right? Let me provide you with some reassurance. Separating from your baby is not going to cause trauma. Will they be anxious for the time being, sure, but is separation also a very normal part of life that our babies will inevitably face – also yes.

It took me a long time to understand that our goals as a parent is not to help our children avoid every hard thing that they must go through. It’s to help teach them that they CAN do hard things.

The way we work through separation anxiety is helping our child learn that while we do leave, we ALWAYS come back. In fact your goal during this stage is to create a routine in which we consistently come back. Notice word choice of consistantly. This will look a little different for every family. For my boys, it meant that I came back every 10-15 minutes to check in on them if they were in distress.

Separation anxiety is incredibly hard, and it can be tempting to try to “sneak out” of the room to avoid the meltdown. However, this sneaking out can actually prolong the separation anxiety. Imagine having anxiety about someone leaving. You turn your back for a minute, and when you turn back around – they are gone! POOF. Now we are shocked, anxious, AND confused! That’s not what we want to do. We want to make goodbyes predictable.

12-18 Months:

Your child is growing older and WISER! Their critical thinking skills are exploding and now they are able to solve new problems! Object permanence is still not FULLY developed, they typically cannot locate an item that is outside of their field of vision, but they are getting more and more creative at solving their problems.

18-24 Months:

Welcome to the Toddler years! This is the last stage of object permanence according to Piaget. Your child’s critical thinking skills have developed by leaps and bounds. Your child is able to hold a mental image of an object, and critically think about where that object might be, even fi they cannot see the object anymore! Let’s see how this plays out with sleep! If you have a toddler, you may already know!

Around 18 months we usually see a second surge in separation anxiety. Toddlers, however, are much more equipped than infants to handle this surge by using their own creativity! This is often where we will see many tactics to help stall bedtime (one more glass of water, one more hug, 2 more stories, mommy don’t go! Etc). For more information regarding this specific topic, check out my blog post: How to handle excessive Toddler requests at bedtime.

Not only will your child be able to critically think about new ways to keep you in the room, they will also catch on QUICKLY to what works and what doesn’t in regards to preventing you from leaving the room or getting you back in the room.

As with any peak in separation anxiety, this is a great time to be consistent and hold your boundaries. Introducing a bedtime routine chart can work WONDERS at this age. Remember, the key to working through separation anxiety is consistency and predictability. It is hard to see our children upset, but we can hold our boundaries in loving ways.

Last notes:

As always, children develop at different rates. These ages listed above are the average ages that these changes in development happen but pay attention to what your child is telling you! They may hit some of these milestones sooner or later based on their individual development. Like all good scientific concepts, we are always learning new things and developing our knowledge around them.

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Very interesting! Didn't know that about my toddler (21 months) 👍🏽☺️

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