On the day your newborn baby first arrived home, she didn’t think of herself as an individual. Rather, she thought of the two of you as one person and didn’t quite realize that those tiny little hands she was waving around were her own.

baby independence

Sometime around 6 or 7 months, your baby will start to realize she’s separate from you,” says Glennis McAdams, a child behavior specialist based in New York. “That’s when separation anxiety can be triggered, and it can last into the second year.

Baby Independence: When it starts

Once your baby becomes more adapted socially, she’ll move forward and establish her own identity and personality. And by the time the magical toddler years roll around, she’ll have very definite opinions on how thing should go in her life – and this is the heart of most temper tantrums.

Baby Independence: 1 to 6 months

Up until the time your baby is 6 months old, she will completely identify with her primary caregiver. She’s occupied learning to control her basic reflexes and movements, and can’t yet be bothered with forming her own identity yet. “Her little life revolves around fulfilling her basic needs of love, food, and attention,” says McAdams. You’ll probably notice the very first signs of your child’s budding independence around 4-5 months, when your baby discovers crying will almost always get your attention. “That’s the first step in learning and development – when she learns that her behavior has an impact on others,” says McAdams.

Baby Independence: 7 to 12 months

“At this stage, the idea of independence is starting to crystallize in your baby’s developing psyche,” says McAdams.

While this in itself can be an exciting milestone for parents, it can also make your baby nervous and anxious. “She now understands what it means when you leave,” says McAdams. “But she worries that you may not come back, and the result is a lot of tears – even for just a few minutes. At this stage, it’s important to resist the urge to sneak away when your baby isn’t looking – for instance, when you leave her at daycare. “It’s hard, but it’s better developmentally for you to say goodbye while she’s watching you,” says McAdams.

Baby Independence: 13 to 24 months

Your baby is now more fully differentiating herself from you and others in his world,” says McAdams. “She’ll probably still get somewhat upset when you leave her with a sitter or at daycare, but she’ll also recover much more quickly now because she’s more secure. Her life experience and her developing memory have now established that you’ll surely come back after you leave for a while. In other words, you’ve successfully established her trust by continually showing that you care and love her.
Within this bond of trust, your child will next learn to assert herself. Her insistence on wearing that certain ugly orange shirt, eating only specific foods, and climbing into the high chair by herself are all signs of her budding independence.

Baby Independence: 25 to 36 months

At this stage your child is struggling to determine the shape and boundaries of her newfound independence. “She’ll likely begin to wander further away from you when your at the park, for instance,” says McAdams. “And then there are the less exhilarating signs of independence – coloring on the walls, and an insistence that she can do everything herself.”

Baby Independence: Your role

The bottom line is this – your child needs a secure emotional attachment to you before she can move out and explore her new world. “Your support and love is crucial at this stage for her to build her confidence,” says McAdams. You can start building this bond when your child is an infant – by immediately responding to her cries, feeding her when she’s hungry, and talking and smiling with her as much as possible. Games are a wonderful independence building activity,” says McAdams. “Playing peekaboo by covering your face, for instance, teaches her that you can disappear and then come back.” While the lessons in the games are important, they also foster a sense of bonding and closeness.

Establish “no free” zones in your home – places where your child can explore without ever hearing the word “no” from you. In other words, keep dangerous objects out of your “no free” zone and provide plenty of safe ones for her to play with. Try to encourage independence by providing your child with choices and activities she can do on her own, says McAdams. “Just by having her choose her own clothing and snacks, for instance, will provide her the sense that she’s learning to help herself.” Let’s face it – this whole independence building phase can be hard on parents. But remember -just because your baby is starting to discover her independence doesn’t mean she requires less love and comfort from you. “She’ll be less needy, but she still craves your constant love,” says McAdams.

Baby Independence: When to be concerned

Separation anxiety is very normal between 9 and 18 months, says McAdams. “But if your child’s anxiety becomes overwhelming – is she’s unable to function without you present, or if she’s inconsolable for hours after you leave her at daycare, you should consult your pediatrician.”