Right after birth, the newborn lacks any sense of “self”. He does not perceive himself as a separate entity but as a part of his mother. As he grows up, he gradually begins to understand that he is a separate being with body, thoughts and feelings that are unique to him regardless of his parents.
This feeling of independence usually appears towards the age of 6-7 months. In many cases, the newly discovered independence leads to separation anxiety, which reaches its peak at the age of 10-12 months and may continue until the second year of life.
The main stages in the Development of independence in babies and toddlers
When a baby is born, his main focus is satisfying his basic and immediate needs – food, warmth and affection. Gradually, he shifts his attention to his body learning to control his limbs. At this stage, he identifies completely with his main caregiver – usually the mother.
7-12 months – separation anxiety
The seven-month-old baby is able to grasp that he is no longer an extension of his mother but a separate being. For the first time there is “me vs. my mother”. This can be a terrifying thought for an infant’s mind as the possibility of being alone suddenly becomes vivid.
One the one hand, the baby is old enough to become aware of his separate existence in the world. On the other hand, he is still too young to have any notion of what psychologists define as object permanence; that is, the understanding that objects (the mother) still exist even if they are not seen, felt or heard. To put it simply, every time the mother gets out of the baby’s sight, he is stricken by fear that she might not return. This fear is referred to as separation anxiety.
Your baby will all of a sudden have problems falling asleep while he is alone (up until now, he didn’t have any such difficulty). During the day, he may be restless and will only be able to relax when you hold him close to you. Some babies even have occasional tantrums. These are all classical symptoms of separation anxiety.
13-24 months – developing object permanence
From 12 months onwards, the process of acquiring separate identity is accelerated. Close to 2 years of age, the toddler understands that the reflection he sees in the mirror is his own (up until now it has been perceived as someone else). When you leave him with another person (for example a babysitter), he may cry but after a while, he is supposed to get over his fears and relax.
His experience and developed memory have taught him that his parents eventually will come back to him. This marks the ability to acquire a sense of object permanence.
25-36 month – Here I am
At this stage the process of acquiring independence reaches full maturity. It is quite common for older toddlers and young children to get far from their parents while being outdoors as if playing hide and seek. They will also try to overstep existing bounds (doing something which is completely forbidden) to challenge their parents’ authority. This is their way of saying “here I am”, I am an independent person standing on my own two feet.
This article was contributed by Dr. Emilia Levin, a child psychologist from Melbourne, Australia