Separation Anxiety in Babies

Separation Anxiety in Babies

April 03, 2020
4 min read

There might come a time when your baby or toddler starts to behave a little differently. Your little one might get clingy, become fearful of strangers or cry when he or she is left alone or at night.

This is known as separation anxiety, and it’s a normal part of your child’s development.

Read on to find out what causes separation anxiety, when it typically starts and what you can do to help reassure your baby or toddler during this developmental stage.

What's in this article:

What Is Separation Anxiety? What Are the Signs of Separation Anxiety in Your Baby? When Does Separation Anxiety Start? How Long Does Separation Anxiety Last? How to Deal With Your Baby’s Separation Anxiety Separation Anxiety in Babies at Night

What Is Separation Anxiety?

Separation anxiety is a phase of development that almost all children go through.

Sometime between the ages of around 6 months and 3 years, your child – no matter how calm and contented so far – may suddenly become clingy and anxious around strangers or when left alone.

Don’t worry through – although it can be challenging at times, this is a completely normal part of the emotional development of your baby or toddler. Your little one will usually grow out of it by around 3 years of age.

What Are the Signs of Separation Anxiety in Your Baby?

During the separation anxiety phase, your baby or toddler may start behaving a bit differently. Common signs of separation anxiety in your child might include:

  • New or increased clinginess
  • Tensing up or crying around unfamiliar people
  • Resistance to being looked after by familiar friends or relatives
  • Crying when you leave the room
  • Reluctance to be put to bed during the day or at night.

When Does Separation Anxiety Start?

For some babies, separation anxiety can start as early as around 6 months of age, although precisely when this occurs differs from child to child.

Around this time your child starts to realise how dependent he or she is on you and the other people in your closest family circle. As a result, your baby starts to feel less safe when you’re not there.

Your child also becomes progressively more aware of his or her surroundings from this time on, so unfamiliar situations can also make your toddler or baby feel upset or insecure.

How Long Does Separation Anxiety Last?

Separation anxiety often starts to fade away around or soon after your baby’s first birthday.

Keep in mind, though, that all children develop at their own pace. So, it’s nothing out of the ordinary if your toddler continues to show signs of separation anxiety until he or she is about 3 years old.

In some rare circumstances, separation anxiety can last longer. Talk to your child's doctor or your health visitor if you’re concerned about your child’s anxiety.

How to Deal With Your Baby’s Separation Anxiety

These are some steps you can take to cope with your baby’s separation anxiety:

  • Plan your exits. If you need to leave, try to do so when your baby is more likely to feel calm, such as after a nap or meal. Your baby is more likely to experience separation anxiety when tired, hungry or ill.
  • Don’t sneak away. Your little one will soon figure out what you’re up to, so honesty is the best policy. Say goodbye and reassure your baby you’re leaving but will be back soon. Greet your child with a smile and a big hug when you do return.
  • Practice short separations to begin with. It can help to start out just leaving your baby with someone else for just a few minutes while you run a short errand. You could even lead up to this with even shorter absences, like hiding behind a sofa and playing ‘peek-a-boo’, to reinforce the idea that you’re still close by, even if you can’t be seen.
  • Create an exit ritual. Instead of just rushing out of the door, it might help to talk about what you and your toddler will do when you’re back. For example, you might say: ‘I’ll be back soon, then we can go to the playground.’
  • Be positive. It’s always hard to see your child sad or worried, and you might even be experiencing a little ‘separation anxiety’ of your own when you have to leave your toddler or baby for a while. Still, an important way of putting your child’s mind at ease is to smile and wave goodbye as if it’s the most natural thing in the world (which it is).
  • Leave a comforting item with your baby. A favourite toy, or maybe something your baby associates with you – like a T-shirt or small pillow with your scent on it – may be comforting while you’re away.
  • Know that your baby will be OK. Remind yourself that however hard it can be to leave, these little absences aren’t harming your baby. In fact, these experiences are helping your child develop the independence he or she will need later in life.

Separation Anxiety in Babies at Night

It can be challenging if your child feels anxious when you leave the room before bed or wakes up and is upset to find you’re not there during the night.

This can be a trying and exhausting situation for both you and your baby. But rest assured that this period will pass. Try to stay calm and develop a consistent pattern of behaviour during this phase.

Combined with some of the techniques described above, establishing and sticking to a consistent bedtime routine may help your little one get off to sleep more easily.

Knowing what’s going to happen next can reassure and comfort your child. A typical bedtime routine might include giving your baby a bath, changing him or her into a fresh nappy and pyjamas, reading a bedtime story and giving a goodnight kiss and cuddle.

Your baby’s sleep patterns can change constantly over the first year or two, and how you deal with these changes will probably differ depending on your child’s age as well as your individual parenting style.

It’s always OK to reassure and comfort your child if he or she is feeling anxious at night. Often just picking your baby up and letting him or her know that you’re still there may be enough.

In time, your baby will learn that you’ll still be there in the morning. Talk to your health visitor if you need help with any sleep-related issues.

FAQs at a Glance

  • Q : How do you stop separation anxiety in babies?
  • Q : How do I know if my baby has separation anxiety?
  • Q : Can a 4-month-old have separation anxiety?

Separation anxiety is a natural part of your baby’s development as she moves toward toddlerhood and becomes more independent. In fact, it’s just as important as other milestones like taking those first steps and learning to talk.

Keep in mind that in time this difficult phase will pass. And, look at it from a positive angle: Your baby’s separation anxiety is a sign that you’ve already bonded closely with your little one, so you must be doing a great job!

How we wrote this article
The information in this article is based on the expert advice found in trusted medical and government sources, such as the National Health Service (NHS). You can find a full list of sources used for this article below. The content on this page should not replace professional medical advice. Always consult medical professionals for full diagnosis and treatment.

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