Separation Anxiety in Babies and Toddlers

M.E. Picher, MA, MED, PHD / Developmental Psychologist and Registered Psychotherapist / Updated Aug 11, 2021
 Baby separation anxiety: Baby crying while mother carries her

Separation anxiety is a normal phase of development that all young children go through. Typically speaking, it starts at 9 months and declines around 18 months but may begin earlier and linger longer. We’ll help you recognize the signs, cope with symptoms and provide tips for handling separation anxiety in both you and your child.


IN THIS ARTICLE:


By definition, separation anxiety in young children can be upsetting. It's upsetting for the baby who is being left by the parent and it's upsetting to the parent who can’t leave without their baby dissolving into tears. But just because it is upsetting doesn’t mean that there’s something wrong.

In fact, you can take your child’s tears as a sign of healthy development. It means they now understand there is an important distinction between you and every other adult in their life and their very survival is dependent upon maintaining a close and ongoing connection to you. This is a good thing.

Separation anxiety in toddler: A fussing baby attached to mom at leg.

Separation anxiety in infancy and toddlerhood is distinctly different than in older children. For children above the age of 6 years old, it may be indicative of Separation Anxiety Disorder and require treatment. 

However, separation anxiety in babies and toddlers is the result of a normal developmental shift in their understanding of themselves in relation to caregivers. Most often, this occurs simultaneously when learning how to crawl and/or walk.

Think about it: Until your baby or toddler could crawl or walk, they went wherever you went. So when they finally learn to move away from you on their own, your baby is starting to realize that the two of you aren’t physically connected.

Your baby now understands that they're separate from the person they depend on for care and safety. Such a mind-blowing discovery is, understandably, anxiety-provoking.

The precursor stage known as stranger anxiety starts as early as 3 months old, but most commonly occurs at 5 months old. This is when babies first start to recognize the difference between their primary caregivers and other adults.

Your baby may exhibit stranger anxiety around close relatives or even the less involved parent, but don’t take this as a sign that your baby doesn’t love them. At this stage of development, their preference is simply based on who cares for them most often.

Baby separation anxiety usually kicks in around 10 months, when your infant first starts to explore away from you. This newfound freedom is accompanied by genuine anxiety over the realization they aren't attached to you, the person they've relied on for every need.

To make things more intense for your infant, they're now also developing a sense of object permanence--the understanding that when an object is out of sight, it continues to exist. They know their parent hasn’t completely vanished and maybe in the next room. Crying is how babies express their desire for you to come back.

Depending on the child, separation anxiety may increase or decrease as they go from crawling to walking. However, by this stage, toddlers start to understand that when their parents leave, they always return. Continued practice with coming and going in settings such as daycare helps decrease anxiety. Their increasing language skills also help toddlers cope more effectively with parent absence.

How long this phase lasts varies greatly and depends on the child. Babies who take more time to warm up to new social situations tend to experience symptoms longer. However, for most babies, this acute period when their distress is at its highest usually ends after a few weeks.

Toddlers may exhibit less intense signs of separation anxiety, and for longer periods of time, because of their improved memory and awareness of their environment. For those frantically searching "when does separation anxiety end" about their pre-schooler, you're not alone. It’s not uncommon for young children to experience some distress when separating from their parents until 3 years old. However, the intensity of symptoms typically starts decreasing around 18 months.

Separation anxiety signs are usually easy to spot in young children. The main ones include intense crying and clinginess. However, not all children will exhibit these signs.

Other common signs include:

When this occurs it’s important not to force your child into the arms of someone they're actively trying to avoid. Instead, give them time to gradually warm up on their own to the caregiver whenever possible. You can assign this person a specific caregiving task that she always does, such as feeding or dressing, so that your child gets used to having someone other than a parent look after these needs.

When babies and toddlers are stressed, they lose interest in exploring their environment. Engaging them through interesting objects and interactive play is a great way to regain attention and lower their stress levels.

While infants tend to show dissatisfaction over parents leaving through tears, toddlers often express anger. This escalation of emotion can be particularly upsetting to parents. However, it’s important to respond to your toddler’s temper tantrums with the same sensitivity you use for their tears. Tantrums are a sign of genuine distress and anxiety, not misbehavior.

Baby separation anxiety: Baby attached to mom is crying while being carried.

It's important to remind you this is a normal, unavoidable part of the attachment process. As challenging as it may be for both you and your child, there are several strategies you can use to proactively deal with this temporary phase of development.

Here are our top tips to relieve separation anxiety in you and your child:

  1. Gradually increase the amount of time that you leave your child with a new caregiver. This not only helps build trust but also helps them learn how to tolerate being away from you. Expect this process to take a few days or weeks, depending on the level of anxiety in your child. The more anxiety your child has, the more gradual the process should be.

  2. Anxiety is contagious. If you respond with your own anxiety, it only serves to intensify your baby's emotions. Instead show confidence in your baby and their caregiver by taking some deep breaths, maintaining a relaxed body and facial expression, and using a positive tone of voice when you drop them off.

  3. When your baby is in the throes of detachment anxiety, it can be tempting to sneak away when they're not looking. However, disappearing on your child out of the blue may inadvertently lead to decreased trust and cause more anxiety in the long run. It also deprives your child of the opportunity to practice saying goodbye, which over time, helps them become more comfortable with you leaving.

  4. While it’s important to make sure you check in with your baby before leaving, avoid dragging out the process as this may prolong their anxiety. Instead, say a few comforting words, give a quick cuddle to calm their body down, then say goodbye. It’s incredibly common to feel guilt, sadness, and/or anxiety upon leaving your baby when they're feeling anxious. But allowing your baby to deal with their anxiety without your presence is what helps her to build resilience and develop confidence that she will, indeed, be okay without you there. (It's also totally normal to cry when you get back to the car. We've all been there!)

  5. As mentioned earlier, saying goodbye is important to maintain trust in your relationship. You can turn your goodbye into a fun and comforting ritual by giving your child an item from home that reminds them of you and by sticking to the same set of words and gestures each time you leave. Incorporating the baby sign for work into the ritual (if you’re leaving to go to work) may reduce anxiety as it helps them understand where you’ll be while you’re gone. For example: Leave baby with a favorite stuffed animal, show the sign for work, squeeze them tight, sing “I love you and I’ll be back soon,” and then blow three kisses goodbye. When this is done consistently enough, your baby may even, eventually, look forward to saying goodbye to you!

FAQ about separation anxiety in babies

Q: How do I know if my baby has separation anxiety?

A:

Most commonly, your baby will cry more intensely than usual and/or cling to you when you try to leave. See section above for how to help.

Q: At what age does separation anxiety typically peak in infants and small babies?

A:

The separation anxiety age can peak anytime between 9 to 18 months in young children.

Q: How does the pandemic affect my baby’s separation anxiety?

A:

In general, the pandemic has decreased the amount of time that young children are spending away from their parents. As a result, babies and toddlers are getting fewer opportunities to practice being away from their parents. This may or may not lead to increased anxiety when they go to daycare. Some children may be hesitant to return to their caregiving environments outside of the home, while others may be excited.

Q: How can I handle my baby’s nighttime separation anxiety?

A:

It’s important to respond to your baby with comfort and care when putting them down for the night. However, it’s also crucial to show confidence in their ability to handle being away from you for the night. If your child is experiencing intense crying or clinginess you can modify their bedtime routine to include some extra cuddles and kisses. Keep bedtime as normal as possible because consistency is what ultimately brings young children the most comfort. If your baby is having an intense reaction to being put down in their crib, you can make the process of separation less scary by playing a game of peek-a-boo whereby you only leave for a few seconds and then reappear to make them laugh.

Q: Does separation anxiety affect my baby’s sleep?

A:

Separation anxiety may temporarily disrupt your baby’s sleep as their body is on higher alert than usual. However, if you maintain a consistent sleep schedule and bedtime routine, this disruption should be short-lived, usually lasting no more than a week or two.

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