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9 month old with separation anxiety needs to be held constantly

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Hi Dr. Laura!

I'm Stephanie, and I am a stay at home mom to a 9 month old son, Carson. This child has been a challenge from the womb, but my current problem is his separation anxiety.

Carson has never been the type of baby who would allow me to set him down without crying. For approximately the first 6 months, he would not take a nap unless he was in his swing or in my arms. The moment I put him down, he would wake up and start crying. He will now, finally, take long nap on his own. Even though he will take a nap on his own, he still will wake up crying and with a sour look on his face because I'm not there when he wakes up.

Naps are now the only time that I have to myself. The rest of the day, he has to be with me or else he will start screaming. He doesn't just whine or cry, he jumps straight to screaming when I set him down. I will try to put him in his pack and play or crib while I get laundry going, vaccum, or even go to the bathroom, but the moment I set him down, he starts to scream. He will scream the entire time that I am gone without letting up at all, whether it's 30 seconds or 20 minutes.I put lots of toys in there with him, even trying to get him distracted before I walk away, but he ignores them all. He just wants mommy.

All that being said, as long as there is someone else here with him, he will be fine. If my husband or I leave the room, he will whine for a few seconds, even crawling towards the baby gate, but is easily distracted and will be fine until either of us get back. I don't think that his anxiety is unhealthy because he will allow someone else to watch him.

I'm just not sure how to handle the situation. I would bring him with me while I do the laundry, but it is impossible to carry a baby along with a basket full of laundry up and down the stairs. Will he just get used to being away from me the more I do it, or will it just make the situation worse?


Dear Stephanie,
You have what we call a high-need baby, as you've noticed. If it's any comfort, they say that each child gives parents a finite amount of trouble, and Carson is getting his out of the way early, so you can probably look forward to easy teen years! In the meantime, I know it's incredibly stressful to have a little screaming barnacle.

I don't have any magic prescription that will change Carson immediately, but Ican reassure you that his behavior is well within the range of normal.All babies need fairly constant holding for the first few months of their lives, which some experts call the "fourth trimester." For some babies -- particularly premies, but also full-term babies -- this need to be held extends throughout the first year. Many nine month olds scream when put into carseats or strollers, but are completely happy in a sling or backpack. You should also know that 9 to 12 months is the worst phase of separation anxiety for many babies.

Carson, smart baby that he is, depends on you for his security. He isn't trying to drive you crazy. He just needs to be in your arms to feel safe in the world. That need is more urgent than anything we can imagine, he really thinks he is about to die when you put him down. But he has made progress in internalizing the sense of safety you are teaching him. First, if you leave the room he can accept comfort from someone else.Second, he is now able to take long naps without being held. Eventually, he won't scream every time you put him down, I promise. He may still get a little nervous, but he will learn to soothe his own anxiety, he will trust that you will return, and he will feel a bit more confidence that the world is a good place where he is safe.

How can you hasten that process? Help him to develop a sense of trust in the world, and help him to learn to self-soothe. How do you do that? Just continue what you're doing now. Hold him, carry him, soothe him. Minimize the times that you must put him down and leave him. Minimize the number of times he feels insecure, and the amount of stimulation around him. Soothe him when he's upset. If he needs to cry, fine, but always let him cry in your arms, rather than leaving him alone to cry. Just tell him it's ok to cry and tell you everything that's bothering him. Most important, find a comfortable sling or backpack and wear him on your body constantly. If you just decide it's going to work, you'll find it's not that hard to vacuum, make dinner, and clean the bathroom with a baby on your back. Indeed women all over the world have carried babies on their back while they worked, probably since the dawn of humanity. (If you haven't found a comfortable sling yet, you might try the BabyBundler, which is designed to eliminate stress to your back and neck.)

Some moms might feel a bit overwhelmed by never being able to put their baby down. If that's true for you, make a deal with your husband that whenever he's around, he will wear Carson. Knowing you can count on some time every day without your barnacle will make it easier for you to welcome him onto your back the rest of the time. It's also important, with a high-need baby, to be sure you get a little time to yourself every day to stretch, take a walk or get some exercise, and replenish yourself spiritually and emotionally.

It may seem inconceivable now, but Carson will eventually grow up into a separate person who feels secure in his own skin. Your willingness to meet his needs now will help him achieve that milestone faster. When the going gets rough, just remind yourself that this phase won't last forever and you're lucky to have a son who loves you so much. You'll look back on these days fondly when he's 16 and too busy to chat with you. Enjoy him, and and enjoy the privilege of being home with your little one.

Blessings to you and Carson.

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