Separation anxiety in babies and toddlers is widespread and a normal stage of child development. Separation anxiety children may cry and become clingy when carers leave, if only for a brief moment.
It can be difficult to part with babies who have this fear, but there are ways parents and caregivers can help alleviate the distress. Usually babies and toddlers grow out of separation anxiety as they age.
In this article, we’re going to discuss separation anxiety in babies, including its causes, signs, and how to treat it during the day and night.
Separation anxiety refers to the fear a baby or toddler experiences when their caregiver leaves, e.g. B. when it comes to the day care center or goes to work. Babies and toddlers with separation anxiety become more clingy than usual and may cry when their caregiver tries to leave them.
Babies can show signs of separation anxiety as early as 4–5 months. However, separation anxiety usually begins to increase when they are around 9 months old. Some infants don’t experience separation anxiety until they are a little older, while others don’t experience it at all.
While separation anxiety can be stressful for both infants and caregivers, for babies at this age it is a sign that they are securely attached to their caregiver. This means that the child has developed a strong and healthy bond with their parents or caregivers that is important for social and emotional functioning throughout life.
Separation anxiety is therefore a normal part of childhood.
Separation anxiety occurs when babies begin to learn object permanence. Object permanence is the understanding that people and objects continue to exist even if the baby cannot see them.
Babies begin to understand this when they are 6-12 months old. However, since they have no understanding of time, they do not know when their caregiver will come back. This causes them to get anxiety and excitement.
As toddlers become more independent, they can become more aware of the separation from their caregiver. This can cause them to go through another phase of separation anxiety.
In many cases, separation anxiety naturally subsides as the child gets older. However, certain factors can trigger it or make it worse, such as:
- the arrival of a new sibling
- a new or unfamiliar childcare environment
- a new supervisor
- move home
- the loss of a parent or a caregiver
- prolonged absences from a carer, for example due to a military mission
- the stress of a caregiver that the child may take in
- feeling tired, hungry, or uncomfortable
Some evidence suggests that parenting styles may also play a role. A parenting style that discourages children’s autonomy or the ability to make some of their own decisions can increase attachment.
Possible signs of separation anxiety in a baby or toddler can include:
- Crying when a caregiver leaves the room
- Holding on to the caregiver, especially in new or unfamiliar situations
- a fear of strangers
- a strong preference for one caregiver over another
- that a caregiver needs to stay close so that they can fall asleep
- wake up at night and cry for their caregiver
The best way to approach separation anxiety is to address the child’s fear and anxiety. This can help them become more comfortable with the breakup over time.
Cuddle and comfort the child regularly
Promote a secure bond by spending time each day holding and cuddling the child and comforting them when they are afraid or upset.
Practice short breakups
Practice leaving the baby in a safe place before entering another room. Return after a short separation. This teaches the baby that their caregiver can go away but come back anyway.
During the absence, people can talk or sing to the baby so they know that their caregiver is still nearby even when they are 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 come back. Likewise, caregivers can try to cover and uncover toys with a blanket.
Toddlers can enjoy similar benefits from playing hide and seek with their caregivers.
Allow babies and toddlers to crawl away from the caregiver into another safe space while maintaining close supervision. 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 ensures a reliable and stable daily routine. Routine is important for children as it provides consistency and reduces the stress of the unknown.
Gradually hire new caregivers
Give babies and toddlers time to get to know new caregivers, such as other relatives or daycare workers. For example, before daycare starts, someone could arrange introductory lessons to help the infant get used to new people.
Explain what is happening and come back in time
If you leave a child with someone else, caregivers should explain that they will go away for a while but will come back. As the baby gets older, they will understand these explanations.
It can also be helpful to provide a time frame. Be careful with this so that the child knows exactly when to expect a return. For example, a caregiver might say, “I’ll come back after your nap to take you home.”
It is important to return early as returning later can result in a child not trusting what the caregiver is saying.
Never sneak away. Never
While it may be tempting to sneak away without the child noticing, it can cause long-term problems. The child may develop a constant worry that their caregiver may disappear at any time, which increases separation anxiety.
Saying goodbye lets the child know what to expect and creates trust that a caregiver will not leave without telling them.
Say goodbye briefly and optimistically
Lengthy goodbyes can prolong the hardship, so keep them short and positive. It can help to create a parting ritual, such as a special handshake, or providing the child with a special blanket or toy to comfort them.
It’s okay to comfort a child who has separation anxiety, but don’t linger. Give them full attention and affection, and then leave.
Providing comfort and reassurance during the day can help make nighttime breakups easier. However, often a little extra support is needed before bed to keep the children feeling safe before going to sleep.
It can help:
- stick to a bedtime
- Make sure they have a safety toy or blanket with them
- Stay calm and relaxed while saying goodnight as children can identify the moods of their caregivers
- Avoid sneaking out after falling asleep – this can cause restlessness when you wake up again
- When the child wakes up, comfort them by rubbing or patting them until they calm down, and then leave
- If possible, avoid taking her out of bed and rocking her to sleep
Separation anxiety typically peaks around 3 years of age and begins to go away as the child develops a greater understanding that their caregiver will return. However, some children may experience separation anxiety over long periods of time.
If separation anxiety persists into later childhood, it is called a child’s separation anxiety disorder (CSAD). This is a mental illness that causes levels of separation anxiety that are unusual for the child’s developmental stage.
CSAD can result in refused school attendance or skipping school. It can also prevent children from participating in activities with others. Children with CSAD can:
- Orally ask a caregiver not to leave
- are reluctant to go to kindergarten or school
- avoid living with others
- get withdrawn or sad
- find it difficult to concentrate in school
Researchers estimate that approximately 1–4% of children in the United States have CSAD. Separation anxiety can affect adults too.
Learn more about separation anxiety disorder in adults.
Caregivers should see a doctor or pediatrician if they have concerns about their child’s separation anxiety. It is especially important to get support if you are anxious about separation:
- is intense or prolonged
- disrupts school or activities
- causes panic attacks
Family carers can also develop separation anxiety. In this case, it may be helpful to speak to a counselor or psychotherapist who can help someone understand and process their feelings.
Separation anxiety in babies is a normal part of their development, and they usually grow out as they get older. It can be stressful for caregivers and infants, but there are many ways to deal with it.
Connection, communication and play all contribute to a feeling of security. Being consistent and sticking to routines can help children understand that when a caregiver leaves, they’ll come back.
If separation anxiety seems severe or persistent, caregivers should discuss their concerns with a doctor or pediatrician.
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