Separation anxiety in babies and toddlers is common, and a normal stage in childhood development. Children with separation anxiety may cry and become clingy when caregivers leave, even if only for a few moments.
It can be difficult to part from babies who experience this anxiety, but there are ways that parents and caregivers can reduce the distress. Typically, babies and toddlers grow out of separation anxiety as they get older.
In this article, we will discuss separation anxiety in babies, including its causes, signs, and how to manage it during the day and at night.
What is separation anxiety?
Separation anxiety refers to the anxiety a baby or young child experiences when their caregiver leaves them, such as when they drop them off at day-care or leave for work. Babies and toddlers experiencing separation anxiety will become more clingy than usual, and may cry when their caregiver tries to leave.
Babies can show signs of separation anxiety as early as 4–5 months. Usually, though, more robust separation anxiety begins when they are about 9 months old. Some infants do not experience separation anxiety until they are slightly older, while some do not experience it at all.
Although separation anxiety can be distressing for both infants and caregivers, for babies of this age it is a sign that they are securely attached to their caregiver. This means the infant has formed a strong and healthy bond with their parent or caregiver, which is important for social and emotional functioning throughout life.
Separation anxiety is therefore a normal part of childhood.
What causes separation anxiety in babies?
Separation anxiety occurs when babies begin to learn object permanence. Object permanence is the understanding that people and objects continue to exist, even when the baby cannot see them.
Babies begin to understand this when they are 6–12 months old. However, because they do not have an understanding of time, they do not know when their caregiver will come back. This causes them to become afraid and agitated.
When children become more independent during toddlerhood, they may develop a greater awareness of separation from their caregiver. This may result in them going through another phase of separation anxiety.
In many cases, separation anxiety will fade naturally as a child gets older. However, certain factors can trigger or exacerbate it, such as:
the arrival of a new sibling
a new or unfamiliar childcare setting
a new caregiver
the loss of a parent or caregiver
extended absences from a caregiver, for example, due to military deployment
the stress of a caregiver, which the infant may pick up on
feeling tired, hungry, or unwell
Some evidence suggests that parenting styles can also play a role. A parenting style that discourages autonomy, or the ability for children to make some of their own decisions, can reinforce clinginess.
Signs of separation anxiety in babies
Potential signs of separation anxiety in a baby or toddler can include:
crying when a caregiver leaves the room
clinging to the caregiver, especially in new or unfamiliar situations
a fear of strangers
a strong preference for one caregiver over another
requiring a caregiver to remain nearby so that they can fall asleep
waking at night crying for their caregiver
How to handle separation anxiety in the daytime
The best way to approach separation anxiety is to address the anxiety and fear the infant feels. This can help them feel more comfortable with separation over time.
Cuddle and comfort the child regularly
Foster secure attachment by spending time holding and cuddling the infant each day, and comfort them when they are afraid or upset.
Practice brief separations
Practice leaving the baby in a safe place before going into another room. Return after a brief separation. This teaches the baby that their caregiver can go away, but will still come back.
While away, people can talk or sing to the baby so they know their caregiver is still nearby, even while out of sight.
Play games to encourage separation
Peek-a-boo is a good activity to help babies learn that even when someone is out of sight, they still exist and will come back. Similarly, caregivers can try covering and uncovering toys with a blanket.
Toddlers may get similar benefits from playing hide-and-seek with caregivers.
Give babies and toddlers the opportunity to crawl away from the caregiver into another safe room, while maintaining supervision from nearby. This will help them develop independence on their terms, and help them understand that it is safe to do so.
Develop a routine
A regular routine provides a reliable and stable pattern to the day. Routine is important for children, as it provides consistency and reduces the stress of the unknown.
Introduce new caregivers gradually
Give babies and toddlers time to get to know new caregivers, such as other relatives or day-care workers. Before beginning day-care, for example, someone could schedule introductory sessions to help the infant get used to new people.
Explain what is happening and return on time
When leaving an infant with someone else, caregivers should explain that they are going away for a little while but that they will come back. As the baby gets older, they will begin to understand these explanations.
It can also be helpful to provide a timeframe. When doing this, be specific so that the child knows exactly when to expect a return. For example, a caregiver could say, “I will be back after your nap to take you home.”
It is important to return on time, as returning later can cause a child not to trust what the caregiver says.
Never sneak away
While it may be tempting to sneak away without the infant noticing, it can cause problems long term. The infant may develop a constant worry that their caregiver could disappear at any time, which worsens separation anxiety.
Saying goodbye lets the infant know what to expect, and builds trust that a caregiver will not leave without telling them.
Keep goodbyes brief and upbeat
Drawn-out goodbyes can prolong distress, so keep goodbyes brief and positive. It may help to create a goodbye ritual, such as a special handshake, or providing the child with a special blanket or toy to comfort them.
It is OK to comfort a child who is experiencing separation anxiety, but do not linger. Give them full attention and affection, and then leave.
How to handle separation anxiety at night
Providing comfort and reassurance during the day may help ease night-time separations. However, often a little extra support is necessary at bedtime to help children feel secure before they fall asleep.
It may help to:
stick to a bedtime routine
ensure they have a security toy or blanket with them
stay calm and relaxed while saying goodnight, as children can detect their caregivers’ moods
avoid sneaking out after they fall asleep – this can cause distress if they wake up again
comfort the child if they wake up by rubbing or patting them until they calm down, then leave
when possible, avoid taking them out of the bed and rocking them to sleep
How long does separation anxiety last?
Separation anxiety typically peaks by the age of 3 years and begins to fade as the child develops a greater understanding that their caregiver will return. However, some children can continue to experience separation anxiety for longer periods.
When separation anxiety persists into later childhood, it is known as childhood separation anxiety disorder (CSAD). This is a mental health condition that causes a level of separation anxiety that is unusual for the child’s stage of development.
CSAD may lead to a refusal to go to school, or skipping school. It can also prevent children from participating in activities with others. Children with CSAD may:
verbally ask a caregiver not to leave
be reluctant to go to preschool or school
avoid staying at other people’s homes
become withdrawn or sad
find it difficult to focus at school
Researchers estimate that CSAD affects approximately 1–4% of children in the United States. Separation anxiety can also affect adults.
Learn more about separation anxiety disorder in adults.
When to seek support
Caregivers should seek support from a doctor, or a paediatrician, if they have concerns about their child’s separation anxiety. It is especially important to get support when separation anxiety:
is intense or prolonged
interferes with school or activities
causes panic attacks
Caregivers can also develop separation anxiety. If this happens, it can be helpful to speak with a counsellor or psychotherapist, who can help someone understand their feelings and how to work through them.
Separation anxiety in babies is a normal part of their development, and one they usually grow out of as they get older. It can be distressing for caregivers and infants, but there are many ways to cope.
Connection, communication, and play all help foster a sense of security. Being consistent and sticking to routines can help children understand that when a caregiver leaves, they will come back.
If separation anxiety seems severe or prolonged, caregivers should discuss their concerns with a doctor, or a paediatrician.