When infants are given clear and consistent messages about your departure and return, they will learn to trust in you and see the world around them as predictable.
Your baby can find a hidden toy under a blanket. Congratulations, that means your baby has developed object permanence! Infants begin to develop a memory for things even when they are out of sight. It also means that infants will begin to protest, sometimes loudly, separation from parents and other caregivers. Separation anxiety is a normal part of child development and it can be challenging to navigate. Some strategies are more helpful than others. When infants are given clear and consistent messages about your departure and return, they will learn to trust in you and see the world around them as predictable. Both of these things are important in developing self-regulation.
There are many familiar games in infancy that help a child develop object permanence and an understanding of what goes away does come back. Engaging in this type of play with your baby throughout the day will help reinforce these concepts and help them regulate their emotions about separation over time.
Peek-A-Boo, I See You
Infants delight in peek-a-boo. Trying covering your face with your hands, hiding behind an object, or covering your head or your child’s head with a blanket. You are hidden from sight and you come back, again and again.
Bubbles are so much fun! Blowing, popping, and blowing bubbles again teaches this concept as well. The bubbles are here, they are popped or float away, and then new bubbles come back.
Old fashioned Jack-in-the-Box or pop-up toys are great object permanence toys. Using language to narrate where the animals go when you close the pop-up toy. “Bye-bye bear” when it is closed. “Hello bear” when it is opened. If separation at sleep time is challenging, try this using sleep based language—“Night, night dog” and “Good Morning dog.”
Hide It Under A Blanket
Hide your child’s toy under a blanket or in a container. Narrate what happens as the toy is hidden and then found. Repeat.
There are many great books for young children with separation themes. Owl Babies is one of my favorites as the baby owls react differently to Mommy owl’s absence. Lift the flap books reinforce object permanence. You can add this feature to photo albums of your family by using post-it notes over faces for your child discover who is hiding.
Use pretend play as a way to act out separation. Model your separation routine within the play. “Mommy is going to the store. Grandma is here. I will be back after your nap. Good-bye.” Let your toddler or preschooler take on either the parent or child role. You might be surprised with what you see them act out. It might give you clues in how your child understands separation. If there are misunderstandings, you can clarify the reasons for separation. For example, your child plays Daddy and says, “Bad baby. Baby threw toys. Bye Baby.” This gives you a chance to clarify during play. You can say, “My turn to be Daddy” and give other language to help your child sort out cause and effect. “Baby and Daddy are playing. When we are done playing then Daddy will go to the store. Baby will be home with Mommy. Then Daddy will come back.” pretend play allows children practice time before the real separation.
I still remember when my daughter was a toddler and having difficulty with being in her own room. One day I observed her play and saw that Mommy and Daddy were in a room in the dollhouse with all the animals and people. The cradle and baby were alone on the top floor of the house. Through her play she was able to show me what it felt like at bedtime—she was lonely and we were having a great time with all the animals! I was able to use this observation to help label her emotions and to be sensitive to her needs during separation times.
Take a deep breath and keep flying!