Q&A: separation anxiety in 9-month-old

Jessica writes:

"I have a friend with a 9-mon. old baby boy. She can't even put him down while she does a pile of dishes or a load of laundry. He is right by when she tries to do house work but he will not let her put him down with out crying. What are some suggestions on how to break him of this?"

It's going to help your friend to think about why her son wants to be held all the time, instead of as something bad she needs to stop. And I would never try to "break" a baby of anything, because that means disconnecting his trust, which is bad bad bad for emotional and mental development.

Not wanting to be alone is really common in 9-month-olds, because they're going through the "separation anxiety" stage. It's a developmental stage when they start to realize that they're separate from their parents, and it makes them scared and anxious. For some kids it's relatively mild, and they just don't like to be alone with strangers. For some kids it's more severe and they don't like to be left alone in a room, even if they can still hear the parent. For some kids, like your friend's son, it sounds really severe, since he doesn't want her to put him down. But all these degrees are normal. It sounds like your friend's son is a little "high-needs" (I guess I'd prefer to think of it as "intense"), and just feels things very deeply. As an adult that's going to be really great for him, because he'll have extreme focus, loyalty, and determination. It just sucks for her right now, because she can't leave him like other people can with more easygoing babies.

Separation anxiety can be totally confusing for the parents. Maybe they've had a baby who was totally content to play alone, sitting on the floor with some toys, babbling away for 15-20 minutes at a time. All of a sudden that same kid wants to be held all! day! long! or screams like she's being poked with a sharp stick if the mother dares to walk out of the room. It feels like their child is somehow regressing, but in fact, the baby is sort of backing up and revving up to go to the next stage.

Or maybe the parents have a more intense baby who's wanted to be held all the time from Day One, and they think that finally by now they should be getting some relief. Everyone tells them that if you give the baby enough touch and attention, the baby will eventually separate, so they've been dong that all along. But it seems like everyone else's baby is just crawling away from the parents happily, while their baby is stuck to them more tightly than ever. What are they doing wrong? Well, nothing. Since they have a child who has a more fierce need to be with the parents to begin with, this anxiety stage is probably going to be more severe anyway. The rubber band theory (scroll down to "You've probably heard...") still holds true, so things would be even worse if they had tried to force their baby to be more independent before s/he was ready for it. And, yeah, other people have kids who don't seem to notice where they are, but that's just not the kind of kid you have. Accepting that the intensity is part of your child's wonderful personality and not something you're doing wrong (or, even worse, some flaw in your child) is going to make everything easier for all of you.

So yeah. 9 months can be really rough. Reaally rough. There's separation anxiety (which hits again in a big way at 2 years), some developmental spurt that causes the 9-month-sleep regression, learning to crawl or cruise, and probably some teething on top of that. They may also be hitting that eating strike in which they only want to eat things they can feed themselves. Oh, and it's cold and flu season, too. So normally clingy kids are stuck like glue, and even babies who usually don't care can become velcro (touch tape) babies. Time to haul out the old sling (even if you never used it with a newborn) and do the hip carry (scroll down)--this age loves that--or the backpack (or mei tai, Ergo, Sutemi, etc.) and just strap the kid on and go about your work. It'll make you feel like a bad-ass Amazon, and maybe the child will just stop fussing.

You know exactly how I'm going to end this: This too shall pass. Hang in there.