Separation and independence
As a newborn, your baby has no sense of herself as an individual: She thinks that the two of you are one and doesn't realize that the tiny hands and feet waving before her are her own.
Over time, though, as your growing baby develops physically and mentally, she'll gradually figure out that she's her own little person, with her own body, thoughts, and feelings. Of course, she'll also want to do things her own way.
When it develops
Your baby's sense of individuality will take years to develop. At around 6 or 7 months, your baby begins to realize that he's separate from you and that you can leave him alone. This is when separation anxiety usually kicks in, and it can last well into the second year.
But once your child becomes more social, and more confident that you will, in fact, come back for him when you leave him at daycare or with a sitter, he'll be able to move forward and forge his own identity. By the toddler years, his growing independence may have blossomed enough to cause some problems: Wanting things "my way" is at the heart of many temper tantrums.
How it develops
1 to 6 months
Until her half birthday, your child will completely identify with her primary caregiver. Working on gaining control over her basic movements and reflexes, she can't even think about the process of forming her own identity during those first few months. Her primary concern is filling her immediate needs for food, love, and attention.
You may start to notice the first signs of budding independence at about 4 months, when your baby discovers that she can cry to get your attention. That's one of the first steps in learning that she has an independent will and that how she behaves can have an impact on others – namely you.
A famous study shows exactly how unaware babies are of their own existence. Researchers placed several infants under the age of 1 in front of a mirror to see whether they understood that the reflections were images of themselves.
They didn't. The babies would pat their mirror images, behaving as if they were seeing another baby. And when researchers dabbed red rouge on the babies' noses and plopped them back in front of the mirror, they always tried to touch their reflections' noses, not their own.
7 to 12 months
At around 7 months your baby will realize that he's independent of you. While this is an exciting cognitive milestone, this new understanding of separateness can make him anxious. He knows that you can leave him, but he doesn't know that you'll always come back, so he's likely to burst into tears when you leave, even for a minute.
Resist the urge to sneak away when his back is turned – when you leave him at daycare, for example. It won't help him cope, and it may just make him more afraid that you aren't coming back. Hard as it can be, say goodbye and go while he's watching.
13 to 24 months
Your baby is now making progress in differentiating herself from you and from the world around her. In the same British study mentioned above, researchers put rouge on the noses of children about 21 months of age. When these babies looked in the mirror, they touched their own noses: They understood that the reflections in the mirrors were images of themselves.
Your 2-year-old may still get upset when you leave her at daycare or with a sitter, but she'll recover more quickly now because she's more secure. Experience and her budding memory skills have taught her that you'll come back after being gone for a while. You've built her trust by continually showing her that you love and care for her.
It's also this trust that gives her the confidence to assert herself. Her insistence on wearing those green pajamas for the fifth night in a row, eating only certain foods, and climbing into her car seat by herself are all signs of her increasing independence.
25 to 36 months
Between the ages of 2 and 3, your toddler will continue to struggle for independence. He'll wander farther away from you as he goes exploring, and he'll continue to test his limits (coloring on the walls, for example, even if you tell him not to). In fact, "I can do it myself" is probably one of the most common refrains you'll hear from your older toddler.
Your child needs a secure attachment to you before she can move away and explore her world. Consistently give her love and support, and she'll build the confidence she needs to strike out on her own.
Beginning when she's an infant, respond immediately to your baby's cries. Build that crucial bond by feeding her when she's hungry, changing her diapers when they're dirty, and smiling and talking with her when she's alert.
You can play games with your baby to enhance her understanding of separation and return (so she learns not to panic when you leave her for a while). For example, play peekaboo by covering your face or ducking behind a piece of furniture, or hide a toy beneath a blanket and find it together. Not only do these games teach a lesson, the interaction fosters her sense of closeness to you.
To develop independence, your child needs to test her limits and explore her surroundings, so provide her with a safe home environment. Instead of running around saying "no" every time she touches something that could harm her, keep dangerous objects out of her reach and plenty of safe ones within it.
Encourage independence and a growing sense of self by giving your child choices and things she can do on her own. A choice between two outfits, snacks, or afternoon activities allows your child to think for herself, and having her drink from a cup or put her toys back into their container shows her she's learning to help herself.
Keep in mind that just because your child is starting to break out on her own doesn't mean she'll require less of your comfort and love. While she may grow less needy, she still craves your constant care.
Encourage her any time she tries something on her own, but don't push her away when she runs back to you for support. She'll want and need your reassurance for a long time to come.
When to be concerned
Although separation anxiety is normal for babies between 10 months and 2 years, you should consult your child's doctor if his anxiety becomes so overwhelming that he's unable to do anything without you by his side, or if he's inconsolable even after you're long gone from his presence.
What comes next
With age comes greater independence and self-awareness. Each year will bring more things that your child will want to do on her own. As your child gets older, she'll become more knowledgeable about herself and the scope of her abilities.
Future developments include the ability to prepare her own food, make friends, and go to school.