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Separation anxiety can be difficult to navigate for both the child and the parent. However, it is important to remember that this is an entirely normal developmental stage for babies and young children, and, most importantly, it is usually a sign of a healthy attachment.
What is separation anxiety?
Separation anxiety is common in babies and young children, usually between the ages of 6 months and 3 years and is not unusual to continue beyond this age. It usually peaks at around 8 or 9 months old. Young babies and toddlers can become anxious when their primary caregiver leaves their sight as they are still learning that these separations are only temporary.
Separation anxiety usually begins when a baby starts to understand that they are a separate person from you, usually around the same time that they become mobile and begin to explore the world away from their attachment figure.
This newfound freedom and desire to explore is accompanied by some anxiety over the realisation they aren’t attached to you, the person they’ve relied on for every need.
Around this age, they are also learning about object permanence. They learn that when an object is out of sight, it continues to exist. If you leave the room and your baby cries, this is their way of signalling that they want you to come back.
In order for a child to develop in a healthy way, a child must feel safe and secure. This means that they must be securely attached to an adult, usually their parent. Attachment is an affectional bond or tie between a child and an attachment figure, usually a caregiver. The bond is based on the child’s need for safety, security and protection, which is most important in infancy and childhood.
The bond is formed in a child’s early years, and has a long-lasting impact on the child’s sense of self, development and future relationships with others. Infants seek the proximity to their attachment figure. Parental responses to the child lead to the development of patterns of attachment, and determine the relationships a child has throughout their life.
Separation anxiety from an attachment figure is considered to be a normal and adaptive response for an infant. These behaviours are thought to have evolved because they increase the probability of the survival of the child.
There may be many instances where separation from your child may be necessary. Many parents need to return to work, attend appointments, or take a break. There are ways to prepare your child for the separation in a way that honours the attachment relationship, and steps can be taken to make the experience gentler for the child. A child’s confidence to do things independently from you will usually come with age.
What causes separation anxiety in children?
In babies and young children, separation anxiety is a normal and healthy part of their development. Children desire closeness to their caregiver and they are built this way in order to survive. Children actually build up the confidence to be away from their caregivers by first feeling close, safe and secure with them.
Separation anxiety in different ages of children
Separation anxiety begins in babies as young as 6 months old; however, babies as young as 3 months old are already aware of strangers.
- 3-7 months old
Stranger anxiety can start as early as 3 months old but most often occurs at around 5 months old. This is when babies start to display behaviour that they recognise and prefer their primary caregiver.
- 8-10 months old
This is when separation anxiety usually begins. This is usually around the time that your baby begins to explore away from you. This is also when babies begin to understand object permanence, that even though they cannot see you, you still exist. At this stage babies may begin to cry when you leave the room or when you leave them in someone else’s care.
- 12-18 months old
Depending on the child, separation anxiety may increase or decrease as they go from crawling to walking. However, by this stage, toddlers begin to understand that when their parents leave, they always return.
Kids Health provide a helpful guide about the different child development stages.
What are the signs of separation anxiety in children?
Some of the signs that your child may be experiencing separation anxiety can include:
- Crying or becoming distressed when you leave them with someone else.
- Crying when you leave the room.
- New or increased clinginess.
- Crying or clinging to you in a new or unfamiliar situation.
- Waking up more regularly at night and seeking comfort from you.
- Being unable to go to sleep without receiving comfort from you.
- Crying or becoming fearful of unfamiliar people.
- Becoming anxious when you are in a busy place as they may fear losing you.
It is important to remember that these are all normal behaviours, an important developmental milestone and, most importantly, nothing to worry about. Supporting your baby or child when they are upset and providing comfort will help them to feel safe and secure.
How to deal with separation anxiety in children
If you do need to leave your child and they are experiencing separation anxiety, preparing them for the transition will be the most important step. This could involve familiarising them with the person who will be caring for them and practising leaving them for short periods of time at first and then building up to longer separations over time. If your child is old enough to understand, you could speak to them about the separation and take steps to prepare them for it.
It is important to remember that the anxiety in your child’s body is real and validating how your child feels will let them know that you understand that they are worried, while also reassuring them that the separation is temporary and you are coming back.
If your child struggles in large gatherings while you are there, avoid pushing your child to interact without you if they do not appear to be ready for this.
How to help children with separation anxiety
Separation anxiety in babies and young children is entirely normal and actually a healthy expression of their attachment. However, if you do need to leave your child, for example with a childcare provider, it can be distressing for both your child and yourself when your child becomes distressed and shows the signs of separation anxiety.
Continued practice with coming and going will help in getting your child used to being away from you and reassuring them that you always return.
The length and intensity of this phase varies greatly depending on the child and their individual temperament. Babies who take longer to warm up in new social situations tend to experience separation anxiety more severely, and for longer. However, for most babies, their distress is at its highest initially and usually ends after a few weeks.
Consistency and reassurance from you, ensuring that you are responding to them with love and understanding, will be a helpful part of the process. Showing them that you are confident in the person who you are leaving them with should also reassure them that they are safe, and will be well cared for while you are gone.
Toddlers may show less intense signs of separation anxiety, because of their improved memory and awareness of their environment. However, it is not uncommon for young children to experience some distress when separating from their parents up until 3 years old and beyond. However, the intensity of separation anxiety typically starts decreasing at around 18 months old. Even if their separation anxiety appears to improve over time, they can take a step backwards and separation anxiety can return when your child is unwell, tired or during periods of change.
Although it is normal for young children to experience separation anxiety, it can still be a difficult phase for both you and your child.
Some ideas for how you can help your child and make the process easier include:
- Preparing your child for the separation.
- Comforting your child when they show signs of separation anxiety.
- Practising short separations and building up to longer ones.
- Having a special goodbye ritual. This can help you connect before saying goodbye. By keeping goodbyes the same each time, you create a familiar transition from being with you to being without you.
- Talking about and planning what you will do when you return.
- Keeping goodbyes short and positive. Don’t appear to hesitate or linger as this can increase the anxiety that they feel. It is important for your child to know that you are confident that they will be safe and well cared for while you are away.
- Leaving them with their favourite teddy or comforter.
- Asking the person who will be caring for your child to have an activity ready as soon as you hand your child over. Engaging children in something interesting can take their minds off the separation.
- Do not be tempted to sneak away without saying goodbye as this will likely make them more anxious that you will leave without warning in the future.
A child’s primary need is for connection. In the early years, they need concrete and literal things to feel connected to you, as what they cannot see or touch, they cannot feel.
As they get a little older, some ideas for keeping that connection between you whilst you are apart may include:
- Writing a note or drawing for them to find in their bag or lunch box.
- Giving them a photo of you, your family members or a family pet for them to look at when needed.
- Using a love button which you can draw on your and your child’s skin to keep you connected when you are apart.
- Giving them one of your kisses to carry and hold and tell them it’s a magic kiss that doesn’t wash away.
It can also be useful to allow your child to be active in the morning before you are going to be separated from them. This could include walking, running or cycling to nursery, for example, as being active can help to regulate their bodies and their nervous system.
When you are reunited with your child after being separated, let them know how happy you are to see them and shower them with love and affection.
It is also important to remember that you do not need to leave your baby or small child in someone else’s care if you do not want to do so or if you do not have to do so, for example, for work reasons. Although you may sometimes hear the narrative that small children need to learn to be independent by being away from you, this is simply not true. Independence comes with age and when it is developmentally appropriate for the child.
This will come naturally in time and does not need to be forced unless this is something that works or is needed for your family. Every child is unique, so there is no set time when separation anxiety will begin or end. If your child is going to a nursery, childminder or another childcare setting, they will be used to children experiencing separation anxiety and they should be well equipped to support you through the process.
To learn more about child development stages, please see our knowledge base.
Although it may be difficult to hear your child cry, remember that separation anxiety indicates a healthy attachment between yourself and your child. While separation anxiety in toddlers isn’t usually something to worry about, if separation anxiety does not get any easier over time or there are signs of extreme anxiety especially as children get older, such as vomiting, nightmares or unrelenting worry, speak to your GP or health visitor in order to get some support.
In a small number of cases, children beyond the age of toddlerhood will develop separation anxiety disorder (SAD). The symptoms of separation anxiety disorder are more severe. Separation anxiety disorder is a type of mental health problem.
A child with SAD worries excessively about being apart from their family members or other people they are close to. The child has a fear of being lost or of something bad happening to a family member if he or she is not with the person. A child with SAD usually has worries and fears about being away from home or being separated from family members.
These worries and fears are not appropriate for their age or developmental stage. SAD is not something that will go away on its own and support will be needed. Cognitive behaviour therapy is one form of treatment for SAD. For further reading about CBT, please see our knowledge base.