My baby screams when I leave her

Our ten month old baby Leah  has always had a cheerful and outgoing personality. She seems very easygoing compared to other babies we know. Lately, however, she gets very upset whenever I (her mom) leave the room, even for a moment.  It doesn’t make any difference if she’s alone in the room—she screams as if her heart is breaking.  Even if her Dad tries to comfort her she keeps screaming until I return.  I have been leaving her with a sitter several times a week since she was a little baby,  and she never had a problem saying goodbye. Now she screams when I leave her there, too.  The sitter says that sometimes she just cries and falls asleep, but that if they go out for a walk she seems to get over her unhappiness faster.  I’ve been working part-time and I'm planning to increase my hours soon, so I'm really worried about this.

It sounds like your little Leah is passing through a very normal phase of development.  Somewhere between ten and fourteen months of age, most babies go through a period where they get very upset when a parent leaves them.  This phase is called "separation anxiety" and describes a baby's reaction when, from her point of view, her parent has disappeared and is not available for comfort or protection. When babies are much younger, a mother can go away for a minute, an hour, or a day and most babies are able to accept a familiar caregiver in her place..  However, towards the end of the first year many babies go through period of weeks or months when the reaction to a mother's departure--whether she leave the room or leave the house--is as dramatic as if Mom had said to her child, "Bye now, see you in a few years!" Fortunately, this phase only lasts a couple of months, but it can feel like a forever when you are in the middle of it.

Leah’s protest, as painful as it is for both of you to experience, is actually her way of saying that she is deeply attached to you and that at this time of her life she values you above all others.  In most families, the howls of protest are reserved for the parent who most often cares for the child, but sometimes a baby will fall apart when either parent leaves the room.  What your child is telling you is that she counts on you to be her protector, and that she hasn't learned yet to trust anyone else the way she trusts you.

Does this mean that you should never leave Leah, not even to go to the bathroom?  Not at all. It’s one of those situations where a baby has learned a part of what she needs to know from you, but needs to learn the rest from someone else.  She’s learned that being with you makes her feel safe and secure.  But you can’t teach her that she will also be OK while you are gone until you leave her and she learns that through her own experience. Fortunately, a baby who has a loving connection with her parent is usually better able to form connections to other caregivers. 

Every separation, no matter how brief, may be painful to Leah right now, but every separation is also an opportunity for her to learn that she can recover and be well cared for by others during your absence.  It will help Leah to get through this if you give her extra help to learn that your leaving does not mean that you are leaving forever.

You’ve already begun to help her by leaving her with a regular sitter.  It’s much easier for babies if they are accustomed to being with the same sitters (more than one is fine) over and over.  Of course, some babies adapt more slowly than others, so “regular” might need to be several times a week for some babies and only once a week for others.

Whenever you leave Leah, be sure to say goodbye. It can be tempting to try to avoid tears by slipping out while she is distracted.  Unfortunately, once she realizes you are gone, she is likely to be even more upset.  From her point of view, you have  disappeared without her knowing.  That won’t make her feel more trust or confidence.  If you are leaving the room, say something like, "I'm going to the kitchen, be back soon."  You can talk to her from the other room, or let the person staying with her tell her what you are doing while you are away. When you return, say, "I'm back!" and give Leah a pat or a hug.  Don't expect her to be brave.  Allow her to cry, but let her know that you are returning soon.  She will gradually learn that even when mommy leaves, she always comes back.

Some babies get more upset if a parent leaves them than if they leave the parent.  You might find that it is easier for Leah to say goodbye if the sitter takes her out for a walk as you are leaving.   If you must leave during her nap, tell her before the nap that you’ll be going and who will be there when she wakes up (even at ten months, she’ll understand).

It's helpful for most young children, whether they are babies, toddlers, or older children, to have "goodbye routines" when parents leave the house, say goodnight, take them to childcare, or drop them off at school.  A special kiss or special words becomes familiar and makes it easier to signal your departure.  Of course, once you do the routine, be sure to leave!  Lingering often makes a child more upset. It's hard to say goodbye, but when the separation is part of a familiar routine, a child learns that separations and returns are just another part of life.

It may be hard to add on more hours away if Leah  is still in this phase of development.  If she is continuing with the same sitter, adding on more work hours shouldn't make a difference in her adjustment, especially since she seems comfortable once you have left. If you are starting new childcare, try to introduce Leah to the new person a few weeks in advance.  Whether you are  at work all day or just leaving the house for a few hours saying goodbye may still be hard, because it is always hard to say goodbye to someone you love. But every time you leave and come back she is learning more and more about being safe while Mom is away. 

At some point your little one will be able to leave you without looking back.  It may take a while, but don't be surprised when someday you are missing her more than she is missing you!

Meg Zweiback