Separation anxiety in babies & toddlers

Jul 27, 2022
9 min read

I am fortunate to be a mother to two wonderful children and while, of course, I do love caring for them, nothing quite prepared me for those periods when they were going through separation anxiety. At times, it felt like I had a child permanently attached to me!

If this sounds familiar, and you’re not quite sure where you end and your child begins, then chances are your child has reached a peak in separation anxiety. This need to be with you 24/7 can begin to take its toll on your little one's sleep. 

In this article:

  • What is separation anxiety?
  • Signs of separation anxiety
  • When does separation anxiety start?
  • How long does separation anxiety last?
  • Separation anxiety at night
  • Managing change
  • How to handle separation anxiety
  • When to seek professional help

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What is separation anxiety? 

Put simply, separation anxiety is when your baby or toddler gets anxious, worried or upset when you leave them. It is a completely normal developmental stage and doesn’t mean there is anything wrong with your little one.

Around 6-8 months of age, babies develop a sense of object permanence, meaning they now understand that something continues to exist, even when it is out of sight. Up until this point, they aren’t able to mentally grasp the concept that an object or person still exists when they can’t see it. 

So, when you leave your younger baby with another caregiver to shower or make a cup of tea, they basically think you are gone forever. And when you think about it like that, it’s easy to see why this would be so upsetting for them! When you return, it's a huge surprise, which is why they are often ecstatic to see you again.

You’re probably wondering though… if older babies and toddlers understand that you haven’t vanished forever, why are they so distressed when you leave them?

There are a few reasons why separation anxiety doesn’t end once babies have developed object permanence:

  • Your older baby or toddler is still learning and growing at a rapid rate and will experience intense developmental leaps where they are learning new skills quickly. During these times they can often be more clingy.
  • While they understand that you exist when out of sight now, they have no real concept of time yet. This can be very unsettling for them as they don’t understand how long you’ll be gone for. 
  • You have been their primary caregiver for probably all their life, they feel safe, secure and loved with you, so why would they not want to be with you ALL THE TIME?! 

Signs of separation anxiety

Babies and toddlers who are experiencing separation anxiety have a fear that their primary caregiver is going to leave them and not come back. As we’ve seen, this anxiety can be due to a range of different factors. 

Some signs of separation anxiety include:

  • Crying when you leave the room
  • Clinging to you or crying in new environments
  • Fear when meeting new people
  • Not wanting to settle at naps and bedtime
  • Wanting a parent to stay with them when going to sleep or cuddle them to sleep
  • Waking overnight or waking more frequently 
  • From around 2 years old, nightmares involving separation/being alone

When does separation anxiety start?

Separation anxiety usually starts around 6 months old and by 3 years most children will have grown out of it. I know what you’re thinking… “Two and half years of this…surely not?!” 

The good news is that while your little one will likely experience separation anxiety during this time, it won’t be constant. Instead, there will be peaks and troughs.

Your child’s temperament will also have an impact on how often or how intensely they experience separation anxiety. I know from personal experience that separation anxiety has looked very different with my own children!

Separation anxiety in babies

Newborn babies are often happy to be passed from family members to friends and back again. And who doesn't love a newborn snuggle?

As your baby gets a bit older though, you may start to notice that they aren't as keen to be held by strangers. They may still be happy to be with familiar faces that they see regularly but, as we have learned, if you disappear even briefly they will think that you are gone forever. This can obviously be very distressing for your little one!

Once your baby’s sense of object permanence develops around 6-8 months, this can ease separation anxiety for a time, however, there are many developmental leaps that your baby will go through that can cause a peak in separation anxiety. During these leaps, your baby may be more cranky and clingy than usual. 

The 8-10 month sleep regression often causes a peak in separation anxiety. During this regression, your baby can suddenly become clingy at naps and bedtime, wanting you to stay with them as they fall asleep.

Separation anxiety in toddlers

Once your wee one is not so wee anymore and they have entered toddler territory, their rate of growth and development does slow down compared to their first year of life. This means that there is a lot more variance when it comes to their developmental milestones.

This is the same when it comes to separation anxiety. One toddler may have a peak in separation anxiety at 15 months, and for another toddler it might not be until closer to 2 years. They are all very different!

Having said this, sleep regressions are often linked with separation anxiety. In particular, the 18 month regression can cause your toddler to become very clingy and anxious all of a sudden.

It’s worth noting that any big change in your toddler’s life can also cause a peak in separation anxiety. Be mindful that “big” for your toddler can be very different to your interpretation of “big”!

How long does separation anxiety last?

There will be times when your little one is absolutely fine with you leaving them and there will be other times when you put them down momentarily to use the toilet and they instantly burst into tears! This is completely normal. As we mentioned earlier, separation anxiety tends to peak at certain times.

When your baby is experiencing a peak in separation anxiety, it’s likely to last a week or two before it starts to ease. With a toddler though, you may find that anxiety lasts a bit longer - up to a month. 

On those tough days, try to remember that it won’t last forever. One day soon, you WILL be able to go to the toilet again without it resulting in an emotional breakdown!

Separation anxiety at night

If your baby or toddler has begun waking more at night, the first thing you’ll want to do is to check for the more common culprits of overnight waking. If there’s no obvious cause for your baby’s or toddler’s night waking, then check to see if they are showing some of the signs of separation anxiety mentioned earlier. 

If you believe separation anxiety is the cause of your little one’s night wakes, then there are ways you can support them:

  • Have a consistent bedtime routine. Consistency helps your wee one feel safe and secure, especially in times of change.
  • Don’t let bedtime get drawn out too long. Stick to your normal routine, especially with toddlers, otherwise that extra story, song, cuddle can quickly become the norm!
  • If your baby monitor has a talkback function, you can reassure your little one with your voice from outside of their room.
  • Introducing a comforter or cuddly can provide extra reassurance. Try sleeping with it for a few nights first, so that it smells like you.
  • If your little one is struggling to resettle back to sleep overnight, go into them and use touch to soothe them. You can do this as often as needed, but try to avoid settling them all the way to sleep.

Managing change

Earlier we talked about how big changes can trigger a peak in separation anxiety. Two of the most common ones we see are starting daycare and adjusting to a new sibling. So let’s explore these in more depth...

STARTING DAYCARE

If your little one is used to being with you nearly 24/7, then starting daycare is likely to cause some separation anxiety initially. This may be the first time you leave your child for an extended period of time and on top of that, they will be with strangers in an unfamiliar environment. It's no wonder they are feeling anxious!

Luckily, there are lots of things you can do to help your little one with this transition:

  • Find a daycare/childminder/nanny/family member whom you trust. It’s important for you to feel as comfortable as possible because your little one will be able to sense if you are feeling anxious.
  • See if you can have some settling-in or orientation sessions at their daycare, where you can stay with your little one to begin with, then start leaving for short amounts of time.
  • A special cuddly or toy that goes between home and daycare can also help your baby or toddler to feel more comfortable in their new environment.
  • Talk to your little one about what’s happening on the way to daycare - yes even if they are a baby! Explain where they are going, that you will be leaving them there and, most importantly, when you will come back to get them.
  • Use a positive, upbeat voice when talking about daycare and try to emphasise how much fun they will have there.
  • Aim to do drop offs at a time when your child isn’t hungry or tired, as they’ll be more emotional then.
  • Have a quick goodbye routine, perhaps a cuddle and three kisses or a nose rub. Create something that is special to you both and do it every time.
  • Do not prolong the drop off. Once you’ve said your goodbyes, leave straight away. It can be incredibly hard to do this when your little one is distressed but believe me, staying only makes it worse!

NEW SIBLING

Adapting to a new baby is challenging for adults, let alone a toddler. It's not surprising that the arrival of a newborn can make them extra clingy. Up until now, they’ve had your undivided attention, but now they have to share you with a new baby that takes up a lot of your time!

You can find detailed advice for how to manage this transition for your older child HERE.

How to deal with separation anxiety

Since separation anxiety stems from a fear of you leaving, the simple solution is to not leave your baby or toddler right? Easy. Problem solved.

Except for the fact that you DO actually have to leave your baby or toddler at times; whether that’s for work, running errands, attending appointments…or even just to have a social life! 

I know it can be tempting to avoid leaving your little one when they’re struggling with separation anxiety, however, it is an important learning experience for them. When you leave, your baby learns that others can care for them in our absence and that they are okay without us. They also get to meet new people and explore new environments. They might even pick up some new skills from their carers or other children.

Most importantly, when you leave your little one, they are learning that you DO return to them each time, which helps to build their confidence and trust.

Here are some ways you can support your child with separation anxiety:

  • Play peekaboo with younger babies or hide and seek with older toddlers. These simple games can help your little one to understand that when you leave, you will return again, and that this can be a fun experience rather than upsetting.
  • Encourage independence and exploration when it is safe to do so, be that at home, with new objects or unfamiliar environments.
  • At home, allow your crawling baby or toddler to spend short periods of time alone in another room, when safe to do so. Tell your baby or toddler before you leave the room, then go and come back.
  • Slowly build up the amount of time you leave your little one for for. If you’ve never been away from your baby don’t start with a weekend away. Initially, you may only leave for a few minutes while you pop to the shops. 
  • Make goodbyes short and sweet. Even if you’re feeling worried or sad, put on your best smile and say goodbye happily and confidently. Drawn out, emotional goodbyes often just add to their upset and yours. 
  • For toddlers, use time specific language that is meaningful to them. If you know for sure you will be home at 12pm then try something like “I will be home at lunchtime, before your nap”. 

When to seek help from a professional

Separation anxiety is a normal part of your child’s development, however, there may be times when you’re concerned that the behaviour you are seeing from your child doesn’t seem ‘normal’. 

If you’re noticing any of the following behaviours, we would suggest reaching out to your healthcare professional for further advice and support:

  • Significant amounts of distress 
  • Cannot be calmed down when you leave
  • Upset for long periods of time 
  • Separation anxiety that hasn’t eased after several weeks
  • Any significant change in your little one’s health, sleeping, feeding or toileting

It’s also worth seeking professional help if you are struggling to cope with your baby or toddler’s intense need to be with you, or if your own anxiety is making it difficult for you to leave your baby.  

If you’d like more support with separation anxiety, settling or sleep, make sure to download our Little Ones App. Our certified sleep consultants would love to help you get things back on track.

We can help you through your baby’s sleep regressions!

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