Separation Anxiety in Babies

Separation Anxiety in Babies

December 09, 2019
4 min read

There might come a time when your baby starts to behave a little differently. She might be a bit clingier, become fearful of people, or cry when she’s left alone. This is known as separation anxiety, and it’s a normal part of your infant’s development.

Read on to find out what causes separation anxiety, when it typically starts, and what measures you can take to help reassure your baby or toddler as she goes through this developmental stage.

What's in this article:

What Is Separation Anxiety? What Are the Signs of Separation Anxiety? 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 that almost all children go through. It’s a completely normal part of the emotional development of your infant or toddler, and your little one will probably grow out of it when he’s about 2 years old.

What Are the Signs of Separation Anxiety?

During the separation anxiety phase, your baby may exhibit the following signs:

  • He may tense up around strangers, or even act shy around people he sees quite regularly, such as friends, relatives, or the babysitter.
  • He may cry or put up a fuss whenever you leave him with someone or whenever you leave the room.
  • At bedtime, when you leave him in the crib, he may cry until you return.
  • In the middle of the night, he may wake up crying in search of you (read more on nighttime separation anxiety here).

When Does Separation Anxiety Start?

For many babies, separation anxiety starts at around 8 months of age, but you may start seeing indications of separation anxiety in your baby as early as 4 months. That’s because between 4 and 7 months babies begin to realize that people and objects exist even when they can’t see them. This is called object permanence.

For example, if you leave the room your baby will know that you’ve gone away. Even though she knows you still exist, she will become upset because she can't see you. Without any understanding of time (this doesn't develop until she's older), she won't know when you'll return or even if you will return and may cry or put up a fuss.

How Long Does Separation Anxiety Last?

All children develop on their own timelines, but the separation anxiety phase typically peaks when a baby is between 10 months and 18 months old. It usually goes away during the last half of your baby’s second year.

The length of the separation anxiety period may be affected by how you respond to certain situations. For example, if your response during a crying spell is to run and comfort your baby, he may learn that a crying fit will prevent you from leaving in the future.

It’s natural for you to want to comfort your little one when he’s upset. Just be aware that how you react can influence how he responds in a similar situation later on.

As your baby becomes a toddler, he may still show signs of separation anxiety. For a 1-year-old, brief periods of separation (more on this in the next section) can help develop his independence. In other words, you can help your toddler learn to await your return instead of throwing a tantrum (get tips on eliminating tantrums).

In some rare circumstances, separation anxiety can last through the elementary school years. Check in with your child's healthcare provider 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:

  • Time your leaves. If you need to leave, try to do so when your baby is more likely to feel calm, such as after naptime or after you’ve fed him. Your baby is more susceptible to separation anxiety when tired, hungry, or sick. If your baby is sick, try to spend as much time with him as possible.
  • Don’t make a big deal out of it. If you’ve handed your baby off to someone else, have this person create a distraction, whether it’s with a new toy, playing in front of a mirror, or even a bath. This is your chance to slip away unnoticed.
  • Practice separation at home. Leave-taking is a lot easier when your baby initiates the separation, such as when he crawls into another room. When this happens, if it’s safe, instead of following him right away, wait a while. If you need to leave the room briefly (after making sure the room is safe for him to be in), tell your baby where you’re headed and when you’ll come back. If he cries after you’ve left, call to him to comfort him, but don’t return right away. Eventually your baby will learn from this practice that nothing bad is going to happen if you leave his sight.
  • Create an exit ritual. If you need to drop your baby off at a sitter's or daycare, try not to just drop him off and rush out the door. Spend some time playing with him before slipping away. Reassure your baby that you will come back for him later in the day, citing a specific time: “I’ll be back after you eat lunch.”
  • Keep your promises. Make sure you return when you say you will. This helps develop your child’s trust and will help build his confidence that he can make it through the time spent apart.
  • Know that your baby will be OK. Remind yourself that your baby’s tears will subside after you leave. He’ll eventually turn his attention to the person with him.

Separation Anxiety in Babies at Night

It can be challenging if your baby feels anxious when you leave the room before bed, or wakes 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 behavior during this phase. In time, your baby will learn that you’ll still be there in the morning.

Tactics and Tips to Help You Avoid Separation Anxiety at Night

Here are a few strategies you can try to lessen separation anxiety at night:

  • Create a bedtime routine. Having one in place can make a difference, because it can set your baby’s expectations by keeping to a consistent pattern.
  • Leave the nursery door open. Your baby might feel comforted knowing he can still hear you in the other room.
  • Give your baby a transitional object. Babies normally develop a consoling habit during this time: He may suck his thumb, rock back and forth, and/or stroke and hug an object. Ask your healthcare provider if it’s OK to give him a small blankie or a stuffed animal.
  • Don’t reward your baby’s behavior. Try not to inadvertently reward your baby for calling for you in the middle of the night. You can check on him to make sure that he’s not sick and doesn't need a diaper change, and verbally comfort him. Beyond that, don’t pick him up, take him back to bed with you, or turn on the light. Before leaving, encourage your baby to go back to sleep. If he continues to cry, you can comfort him for a little bit longer.

FAQs at a Glance

  • Q : How do you stop separation anxiety in babies?
  • Q : How do you deal with separation anxiety at night?
  • Q : Can a 3-month-old have separation anxiety?
  • Q : How do I know if my baby has separation anxiety?

Separation anxiety is a natural part of your baby’s development as she moves toward toddlerhood and becomes more independent. Consider trying some of the tips in this article and speak to your healthcare provider for more advice. Keep in mind that in time this difficult phase will pass.

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All sources links

Mayo Clinic: Separation Anxiety

Kids Health: Separation Anxiety

Kids Health: Anxiety Disorders

Book: Caring for your baby and young child birth to age 5, Sixth Edition Paperback – November 2, 2014 by American Academy of Pediatrics (Author)

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