Shelley Zintl and Cherin Abdelaal Selim replies:
QuestionMy third child was born in April this year. She was a solid 4.8kgs and born naturally (wince!). She has had problems with silent reflux and I was told by the pediatrician at our local hospital to buy some ear muffs or put her in another room and ignore her screams. Of course I could not and still can not ignore her distress. Although her reflux is mainly gone now she has become so clingy that I have had to give up my job because the thought of putting her into someone else's care is terrifying. She will go to her Dad most of the time but is only quiet and happy when she is in the same room as me. Or of course being held by me. Is this something I have caused by not ignoring her? Or is that some babies need more reassurance than others? Any help would be appreciated. I don't necessarily want her to be more independant, I just want to understand why she is the way she is.
This being your third child, gives you a wealth of experience to draw upon. I’m glad that you did not ignore her when she was an infant and in pain with reflux. However, now she is about six months she is entering into the typical age where ‘separation anxiety’ is common. It signals a new social developmental phase. A development in their thinking ability namely ‘object permanence’ is on the brink of emerging (the awareness that when you can’t see someone, knowing that they still exist and being able to have a picture of them in your mind). Due to this inability, it is somewhat frightening for young ones due to uncertainty in their mind that their source of comfort (mum) still exists when she can’t be seen. This causes the common separation anxiety for this age group. Your daughters’ clinginess is probably a combination of this developmental stage and the established pattern of being attended to mostly by you.
She is probably somewhat conditioned to being comforted by you primarily and this can become problematic if this becomes a dependency and she refuses to be comforted by her father, nana, aunty or other familiar people in her world. Such an overdependence becomes very onerous to live with and exhausting. It is therefore helpful to reduce this by allowing her to be comforted by familiar trusted others and for you to stand back more.
It will be helpful to encourage some independence by stepping back on occasions when she is not physically hurt and to take your time in attending to her e.g. when hanging out the washing, hanging out that one last T’shirt before attending to her. Where possible allow others to do the soothing frequently.
Provide lots of brief positive interactions when she is playing well independently and make frequent brief trips out of the room to encourage the awareness of ‘object permanence’ so that even though you’re out of sight, you do still exist and you will come back. The repetition of you coming and going will help consolidate this awareness and alleviate the anxiety somewhat. Peek a Boo is another game that can be uses to encourage this. You can also talk to her from the other room with a soothing voice to reassure her, and again encourage this awareness that though she can’t see you, you still exist, and will return. As she learns this and she learns to be comforted by others this anxiety and clinginess will lessen and she will increasingly feel more safe and secure. It may be comforting to know that only one in four or five children around this age do not show separation anxiety.
Shelley Zintl and Cherin Abdelaal Selim
PG Dip ChFamPsych, MEd, MNZPsS