Separation Anxiety in Babies and Toddlers

M.E. Picher, MA, MED, PHD / Developmental Psychologist and Registered Psychotherapist / Updated Apr 05, 2021
Mom comforting baby

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


IN THIS ARTICLE:


By definition, separation anxiety in young children is upsetting. It's upsetting for the baby who is being left by the parent and it's upsetting to the parent who, all of a sudden, can’t leave her baby without her dissolving into tears. But just because separation anxiety 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 that your baby now understands that there’s an important distinction between you and all the other adults in her life and that her very survival is dependent upon her maintaining a close and ongoing connection to you. This is a good thing.

Toddler with separation anxiety hugging parents legs.

Separation anxiety in infancy and toddlerhood is distinctly different from separation anxiety in older children. When separation anxiety occurs in children above the age of six-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 their caregivers. Most often, this occurs simultaneous to young children learning how to crawl and/or walk.

Think about it. Up until the time your baby or toddler could crawl or walk, she went wherever you went (except for when she was sleeping). So when she finally learns to move away from you, all on her own, it’s the first time she realizes that she and you aren’t physically connected.

Such a realization is, understandably, anxiety-provoking as she now understands that she’s separate from the person she depends on for her care and safety.

The precursor to separation anxiety, stranger anxiety, starts as early as 3 months old, but most commonly occurs at 5 months old. Stranger anxiety is when babies first start to recognize the difference between their primary caregivers and other adults. This means that your baby may exhibit stranger anxiety around close relatives or even the less involved parent. Don’t take this as a sign that your baby doesn’t love them. At this stage in her development, her preference for you (if you’re the primary caregiver) is simply based on who cares for her most often.

Baby separation anxiety usually kicks in around 10 months because this is when your infant starts to explore away from you for the first time. Her newfound freedom is accompanied by genuine anxiety as she realizes she isn’t attached to the person she has come to rely on for her every need. A consolidated sense of object permanence--the understanding that when an object is out of sight, it continues to exist--intensifies the infant’s tears as she understands that her parent hasn’t completely vanished, and may be in the next room. Crying is how she expresses her desire for you to come back.

Depending on the child, separation anxiety may increase or decrease as she goes 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 aids in decreasing separation anxiety. Increasing language skills also help toddlers cope more effectively with their parents’ absences.

How long separation anxiety lasts in young children varies greatly depending on the child. Babies who are temperamentally low in approachability, meaning that they are “slow to warm up” to new social situations, tend to experience symptoms longer than babies who are less inhibited in such situations. However, for most babies, the acute period of separation anxiety, when their distress is at its highest, usually ends after a few weeks.

Toddlers may exhibit less intense signs of separation anxiety for longer periods of time because of their improved memory and awareness of their environment. It’s not uncommon for young children to experience some distress around separating from their parents until the age of three-years-old. However, the intensity of these symptoms typically starts to decline around 18 months.

When young children are going through separation anxiety, the signs are, usually, easy to spot. 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 she’s actively trying to avoid. Instead, allow her time to gradually warm up to the caregiver on her own whenever possible. You can assign this caregiver a specific caregiving task that she always does, such as feeding or dressing, so that your child gets used to having someone other than her parent looking 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 their attention and lower their stress levels.

While infants tend to show their dissatisfaction over their 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 tantrums with the same sensitivity you use to respond to their tears. Tantrums are a sign of genuine distress and anxiety, not misbehavior.

Baby separation anxiety: Baby crying while mother carries her.

Separation anxiety is a normal, unavoidable part of the attachment process. As upsetting as it may be for both you and your child, there are several strategies you can use to proactively deal with this challenging, yet temporary, phase of development. Here are our top tips for relieving separation anxiety in you and your child:

  1. Using a process of gradual exposure, whereby you gradually increase the amount of time that you leave your child with a new caregiver, not only helps her build trust in the new caregiver, but also helps her learn how to tolerate being away from you. This process usually takes a few days to a few weeks depending on the level of anxiety in your child. The more anxiety your child has, the more gradual the process.

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

  3. When your baby is in the throes of separation anxiety, it can be tempting to sneak away when she’s not looking. However, disappearing on your child out of the blue may, inadvertently, lead to decreased trust, and in turn, cause more anxiety in the long run. It also deprives your child of the opportunity to practice saying good-bye, which overtime, helps her become more comfortable with your leaving.

  4. While it’s important to make sure you check in with your baby before leaving, it’s also advisable not to linger too long as this may prolong her anxiety. Instead, say a few comforting words, give her a quick cuddle to calm her body down and then say good-bye. While it’s incredibly common to feel guilt, sadness and/or anxiety upon leaving your baby when she’s feeling anxious, it doesn’t mean you shouldn’t do it. In fact, allowing your baby to deal with her anxiety without your presence is what helps her to build resilience and develop confidence that she will, indeed, be okay without you there.

  5. As mentioned earlier, saying goodbye is important to maintaining trust in your relationship. You can turn your goodbye into a fun and comforting ritual by providing your child with an item from home that reminds her 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 her to go to work) may reduce her anxiety as it helps her understand where you’ll be while you’re gone. For example: Leave her with a favorite stuffed animal, show her the sign for work, squeeze her tight, sing “I love you and I’ll be back soon,” and then blow her three kisses good-bye. 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.

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

A: Separation anxiety can peak anytime between 9 to 18 months in young children. See section above.

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 less opportunities to practice being away from their parents. This may or may not lead to increased separation anxiety once they go back 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’s separation anxiety with comfort and care when putting her down for the night. At the same time, it’s crucial to show confidence in her ability to handle being away from you for the night, (just as she did before she developed separation anxiety). If she’s experiencing intense crying or clinginess you can modify your bedtime routine to include some extra cuddles and kisses. However, it’s important to keep her bed time and routine as normal as possible as consistency is what, ultimately, brings young children the most comfort. If your baby is having an intense reaction to being put down in her crib, you can make the process of separation less scary by playing a game of peek-a-boo whereby you only leave her for a few seconds and then reappear to make her laugh.

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

A: Separation anxiety may temporarily disrupt your baby’s sleep as her 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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Created Mar 24 2021