Separation Anxiety In Babies: When Do They Get It And How To Handle It

Separation Anxiety In Babies

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The little one looks at you sadly. Their teary eyes seem to be pleading with you, “Don’t go leaving me alone”. Your heavy heart overflows with emotion seeing your baby go through such trauma every day.

Given a chance, you would never leave your child because it is as much painful to you as it is for them. But they need to go to school, and you need to go back to work. Separation is inevitable, and so is separation anxiety.

MomJunction tells you about separation anxiety (SA) in babies, when it occurs, how long it lasts, signs of separation anxiety, and how to help your baby cope with it.

What Is Separation Anxiety In Babies?

Separation anxiety (1) is a developmental stage wherein the baby gets anxious when separated from the mother or the primary caretaker. It is normal and reflects the strong bond you share with your baby.

In the first six months, babies cannot recognize people and are fine being with any person. But after six months, they learn to identify faces and form a strong bond with parents and caregivers. Eventually, they understand the concept of ‘object permanence’ (knowing that objects exist when out of sight) (2). That is when the child’s attachment to the mother deepens.

SA indicates that your baby is developing a sense of security, and understands that people and things exist even when they are out of sight. So, when mothers leave their babies, they cry and are upset. Pat yourself for doing a good job as a mother.

However, if your baby is not clinging on to you, it does not mean that you are not doing a good job.

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Do All Babies Experience Separation Anxiety?

Separation anxiety indicates that your baby is developing his independence and sense of security. It is common for all babies to have separation anxiety but in varying degrees.

Most babies show signs of SA in certain situations, such as when you leave them to go to the washroom, when you put them in the crib and leave the room, or drop them at daycare or playgroup.

This brings us to one question.

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[ Read: How To Deal With A Clingy Baby ]

When Do Babies Get Separation Anxiety?

The first time babies experience separation anxiety is when they are around eight, the time when they understand that their parents exist even when they are out of their sight. It peaks at around 13 to 15 months (3) and lasts for up to two to five months (4).

SA typically occurs when the primary caregiver, the mother, leaves to work or goes out. They know that you are leaving but do not know when you would be back because the babies don’t yet understand the concept of time.

This anxiety lasts until the baby begins to realize the fact that you are not leaving them permanently but are just going to work or run an errand.

Most babies overcome the anxiety by the time could manifest in various ways as the baby grows in age. They can show it through various behaviors.

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Signs Of Separation Anxiety

You can identify SA in your child through one or more of these signs:

  1. Cries when left alone or with someone else: This is the classic sign of separation anxiety. Your baby might have difficulty being with the caregiver or even with the other parent.
  1. Sleep time is interrupted: It’s common for babies with separation anxiety to wake up more than once during the night and cry out for you. They have nightmares about being separated from you. All they need is your reassurance that you are there for them so that they feel secure.
  1. Wakes up early: Your baby might wake up early and is unable to go back to sleep unless you are around.
  1. Clings on to you: Your baby will cling on to you especially when you take him to new places or meet strangers. You almost feel like a kangaroo with the baby in the sac.
  1. Visibly distressed: Some babies become distressed, and it might be difficult to calm them down. They are upset and get cranky.
  1. Hates playing alone: They don’t want to play with their favorite toys because they want their mother to play with them. Though it is time-consuming, play with them for some time before you leave them. It’s a great way to tell them bye-bye.

[ Read: Signs Of Stress In Babies ]

You can try using a perfume for a week and let your baby get used to your smell. Then ask the caregiver to use the same perfume so that your baby associates the smell with you.

The smell may not work once the baby starts recognizing your face and voice. Therefore, how do you handle SA at various stages of the child’s development.

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Separation Anxiety At Different Stages

Separation anxiety occurs at different stages of the baby’s development. Let’s see how you can help them at each stage:

Infant/ baby:

Infant baby

Image: iStock

Babies experience separation anxiety typically around eight months but it can vary from one child to another. It lasts from weeks to months until your baby understands that you are not abandoning him forever.

How to help your baby through it?

  • Introduce your baby to caregivers early: Start introducing your baby to babysitters or caregivers from as early as six months. That way, he will get used to others, and to your absence.
  • Let your body language be in sync with your words: When you head towards the door, your baby senses your feelings and emotions. So be confident, smile, and bid a goodbye cheerfully. Your baby can be confident only if you are confident leaving him with the caregiver.



Image: iStock

Separation anxiety peaks around 12 to 24 months in some babies, but some get over it before the toddler age. Around the age of two years, children develop a strong attachment to the parent, and they also have a strong urge to have control over things. They understand that you will be back, but they want you to stay around with them.

Children are good at manipulation. They know that crying will elicit a reaction from you, so they do whatever they can to avoid the separation. They might be loud, and it would be difficult to stop them.

[ Read: Signs Of Overtired Baby ]

How to help your toddler through it?

  • Give your baby a task or responsibility: Ask him to close the door after you leave or tell him to help his nanny wash his clothes. Give him any fun task that can keep him occupied.
  • Specify a time when you will be back: When you are leaving, tell your baby you will be back by supper time or if you leave in the morning tell him you will be back by evening.



Image: iStock

A typical scene at preschools has children crying their heart out, some refusing to leave their parents, or some clinging on to their parents’ legs.

Changes such as a new school, new house or the arrival of a sibling can bring about separation anxiety in children of this age. Also, the unfamiliar faces make them feel anxious. It lasts for a few weeks till they understand that their mom will come and pick them up from school, the new house is as safe as the old one, or they can play with the sibling and have fun.

How to help your preschooler through it?

  • Let your child be okay with his emotions: Comfort your child by saying, “I know that you are scared and anxious. But you were also scared when we went on that adventure ride the first time, and then you had fun after some time.” Convince him that he will be able to deal with his fears and anxiety.
  • Spend extra time with them: Plan extra one-on-one time with your child so that he gets attention, feels safe, secure and less threatened. If the child has a new sibling, give your older kid extra attention and involve him in household chores so that he doesn’t feel neglected.
  • Have a timetable: It’s generally good to have order in your child’s routine. It proves helpful during separation because he knows what happens next, and by when he can see you again.
  • Don’t give in to your child’s demands: Your child might sometimes throw tantrums such as wanting his pacifier back or insisting that you sleep with him and so on. Don’t give in to his demands, instead, shower him with lots of love and hugs but stay firm.

You might think that you have readied the baby for separation by setting the routines for feeding, sleeping, etc., but he would leave you unawares by sitting up and crying in the middle of the night. That’s one of the signs of separation anxiety.

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[ Read: Sleep Apnea In Babies ]

Separation Anxiety In Infants At Night

Bouts of SA during the nights will deprive the baby and you of your sleep. Babies with separation anxiety wake up more than once during the night and cry for the parent or the caregiver.

The fear of getting separated from you at night is real. Here is how you can deal with such episodes:

  1. Talk to your baby: Once you put him to sleep, don’t leave immediately, continue to talk and sing to him. Leave him for a few seconds, come back and then slowly increase the gap of separation. Eventually, he will get used to staying away from you.
  1. Develop a bedtime routine: Make the bedtime peaceful, soothing, and loving. Give a light massage before sleep, sing a lullaby, or cuddle him so that the separation is less painful.
  1. Provide reassurance: Stay close to your child after he falls asleep. Babies wake up thinking that they have been left to fend for themselves, and therefore need assurance that you are there.
  1. Don’t sneak out: This is a tempting thing to do but damaging in the long run. While it’s easy to vanish after your baby dozes off, it can make him insecure and uncertain every time you leave him. Instead, say a firm and loving goodnight and then leave him.
  1. Make it short and simple: If he cries, tend to him and make the visit short and simple. Ensure that he falls asleep on his own without much help from you.
  1. Stay calm: It’s natural for the parent to be worried about separation from the baby at night time. But, don’t let it show on your face. Be confident and happy and let him know that all’s well and there’s no reason to be unhappy. Your baby will get your vibes and will automatically relax taking cues from you.
  1. Play peek-a-boo: Playing peek-a-boo with your baby will help him understand that even if you are gone, you will be back.

Separation anxiety is just a phase in the baby’s development, and you can ease the process for your baby.

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How To Help Your Baby Deal With Separation Anxiety?

Separation is never easy. Bidding good-bye is perhaps one of the hardest things for moms and babies. Here’s how you can ease the separation.

  1. Set a routine: Stick to a routine of saying goodbye. A regular schedule can help your child trust you and develop his ability to get through separation anxiety. Do not break the routine as you might have to start from scratch.
  1. Practise it: Practise the ritual of separation even before your baby starts going to nursery. Leave your baby with a caretaker or grandparents and stay away for a while. This will help him get ready when it is time for school. The more you practise this, the sooner it becomes a habit.
  1. Make them familiar: Get your baby familiar with the caretaker whether it is at the daycare or home. Let him be comfortable and acquainted with the environment. Give your baby time to settle down and if it helps, send along with him his favorite toy or blanket so that he can be connected to home.
  1. Talk to your baby: Before you leave, talk to your baby. Let your baby know that he has to go to the daycare or stay at home until you come back. Sweet-talk to him by saying, “Mama will be back soon after work, the nanny will take care of you, and I will call you during lunch.” Babies understand body language and gestures.
  1. Don’t pamper every time he cries: Each time your baby cries, don’t cajole and hug him. Doing that will only heighten the anxiety. Instead, let him cry out and express his emotions. Give him some time to deal with the separation. He might stop crying if you don’t interfere. Park your motherly instincts for a while and stay strong and firm.
  1. Say bye always: Don’t leave without saying goodbye. If you sneak out without saying goodbye, your baby will be upset. Be firm and loving when you say it; keep it short and cheerful and make it a routine every day. Don’t come back after you have said goodbye; that will only make things worse.

[ Read: Tips To Handle A Fussy Baby ]

  1. Time the separations: Separations are harder when the baby is tired or hungry, so try them when he is happy, well fed, and healthy. Don’t leave while he is sleeping or looking away, he might wake up and start crying. You will also be breaking his trust if you do that. Ask your caretaker to distract him with a toy or favorite food immediately after you leave. He will shift his attention to the caregiver or others around him through which he can also develop his social skills.
  1. Don’t cry before your baby: As hard as it may sound, don’t cry in front of your baby. Crying makes it almost impossible for your baby to part from you because he knows that you are also pained by the separation. So, gather yourself and put up a brave front while you leave your baby.
  1. Reuniting rituals: When you are back from work and your child reaches to you, hug him and spend time or play with him for a while before you move on to other tasks. This will reassure him that no matter how painful the separation is, the reunion is happy and cheerful.
  1. Stand by your words: If you promise your baby something after you come back, make sure you keep up the promise. He will trust you if you do so and is more likely to be at peace when he leaves you. That will also make him independent and confident in his ability to stay without you.

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What Is Separation Anxiety Disorder?

Children, usually, come out of SA by two years. But if it continues beyond two years and restricts the child’s development, then it turns into separation anxiety disorder or SAD (5).

SAD is characterized by anxiety about any harm coming to the attachment figure, refusal to go to school, and fear of going to sleep without parents. In the case of SAD, the child requires professional help.

Separations are painful both for you and the baby, but they are inevitable. However, if you find your child to be unusually upset or traumatized about separation, you need to probe into the reason. The caretaker at the day care might be ill-treating them, or somebody could be bullying them in the school or it could be something more serious than what you thought. Do not brush aside your child’s apprehensions but make sure the reason for his anxiety is just your separation and nothing else.

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[ Read: Stress In Toddlers ]

Do you have an experience to share? Do leave it in the comments section.

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