All About Separation Anxiety in Babies, Toddlers, and Older Kids

There might come a time when your baby starts to behave a little differently. They might be a bit clingier, become fearful of people, or cry when they’re left alone. You may be wondering, “Why does my baby cry when I leave the room?” This is known as separation anxiety, and is a normal part of your infant’s development.

Read on to find out the definition of separation anxiety, the signs and symptoms, what causes separation anxiety in infancy, when it typically starts, and what measures you can take to help reassure your baby, toddler, or older child as they go through this developmental stage or period in their life.

What Is Separation Anxiety?

Separation anxiety is a phase that almost all children go through, and it’s a completely normal part of the emotional development of your infant or toddler. Separation anxiety is when your little one starts to realize there’s only one you—causing them to become upset or anxious when you leave them. During these early stages, they don’t have a clear sense of time, so when you leave, they have no idea if or when you’ll be back, causing them to get upset. But be patient during these periods as your little one will likely grow out of separation anxiety when they’re about 2 or 3 years old.

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What Are the Signs and Symptoms of Separation Anxiety?

During the separation anxiety phase, there are some signs and symptoms that you can look out for in your little one:

  • They may tense up around strangers, or even act shy around people they see quite regularly, such as friends, relatives, or the babysitter.

  • They may cry or put up a fuss whenever you leave them with someone or whenever you leave the room.

  • At bedtime, when you leave them in the crib, they may cry until you return.

  • In the middle of the night, they may wake up crying in search of you.

What Causes Separation Anxiety in Children and Babies?

Separation anxiety is a common and natural part of childhood development, especially evident during early childhood. It’s essentially a fear or anxiety that children experience when separated from their primary caregivers, which can be a part of their normal development process. This normal developmental stage is characterized by your little one’s increasing cognitive abilities and object permanence, knowing you still exist even when you’re not there, leading to distress when separated.

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 they know you still exist, they may become upset because they can’t see you. Without any understanding of time (which doesn't develop until they’re older), they won’t know when you’ll return or even if you will return and may cry or become fussy.

How Long Does Separation Anxiety Last?

So, if separation anxiety generally starts around 8 months of age, when does it end? 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 immediately, they 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 they’re upset. Just be aware that how you react can influence how they respond in a similar situation later on.

As your baby becomes a toddler, they may still show signs of separation anxiety. For a 1-year-old, brief periods of separation can help develop their independence. In other words, you can help your toddler learn to await your return and help eliminate 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 and read the sections below to discover more about separation anxiety in toddlers and older children.

How to Deal With Separation Anxiety in Babies

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 them.

    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 them 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 they crawl into another room. When this happens, if it’s safe, instead of following them right away, wait a while. If you need to leave the room briefly (after making sure the room is safe for them to be in), tell your baby where you’re headed and when you’ll come back. If they cry after you’ve left, call to them to comfort them, but don’t return right away. Eventually, your baby will learn from this practice that nothing bad is going to happen if you leave their sight.

  • Create an exit ritual. If you need to drop your baby off at a sitter’s or daycare, try not to just drop them off and rush out the door. Spend some time playing with them before slipping away. Reassure your baby that you will come back for them 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 their confidence that they 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. They’ll eventually turn their attention to the person with them.

Separation Anxiety in Babies at Night

If your baby cries when you put them down for bed, feels anxious when you leave the room, or wakes and is upset to find you’re not there during the night, these could be signs of separation anxiety at 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 they can still hear you in the other room.

  • Give your baby a transitional object. Babies normally develop a consoling habit during this time: They may suck their thumb, rock back and forth, and/or stroke and hug an object. Ask your healthcare provider if it’s OK to give them 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 them to make sure that they’re not sick or don’t need a diaper change, and verbally comfort them. Beyond that, don’t pick them up, take them back to bed with you, or turn on the light. Before leaving, encourage your baby to go back to sleep. If they continue to cry, you can comfort them for a little bit longer.

Separation Anxiety in Toddlers and Older Children

Separation anxiety is a phase that many toddlers and older children go through, marking a distinct progression from the separation anxiety observed in babies. This development phase is a normal part of childhood and signifies the deepening of a child’s understanding of their relationships and environment. However, it can manifest differently as children grow older, presenting unique challenges for parents and caregivers.

For toddlers and older children, separation anxiety often surfaces during times of transition or stress, such as starting school or dealing with changes in the family dynamic. Unlike babies, who primarily react to the immediate absence of a caregiver, older children can anticipate separations and may worry about the possibility of something happening to their parents while they are apart. This anxiety can lead to reluctance or refusal to go to school, sleepovers, or other activities where they are separated from their familiar environment.

As your little one gets older, they are more likely to realize the effect their crying has on you. But rest assured, most children are easily distracted by the people and things around them in the new environment and will soon calm down after you leave.

How to Help With Separation Anxiety in Children

To help your toddler or older child manage separation anxiety, you can use some of the same strategies given in our section above on “how to deal with separation anxiety in babies.” And now that they’re a little older, you can communicate with them better. Keeping your promises, practicing goodbyes at home, and creating a short and sweet goodbye ritual are all great ways to help your little one. So, whether your little one is 3-years-old or 5-years-old, here are some other ideas to help them with separation anxiety:

  • Stay calm. Your child picks up on your emotions. Stay calm and positive about separations to help your child feel more secure.

  • Be consistent. Create a consistent way to say goodbye that’s reassuring for your child. This could be a special hug, a wave, or a saying that you use each time you part. Consistency in your actions and responses is key to helping them adjust.

  • Be specific. If you know when you’ll be back for your child, tell them in a clear and specific way, for example, “I’ll be back after lunch,” or “I’ll be back after story hour.” And stick to your promise.

  • Introduce new caregivers in advance. If someone new will be taking care of your child, have them visit while you are there so your child can get to know them with you nearby. If they’re starting a new school, give them a chance to meet their new classmates and teachers before the school year begins.

  • Discuss and acknowledge feelings. Talk about feelings of anxiety with your child, acknowledging their feelings and reassuring them that it’s okay to feel this way. Help them put their fears into words or even have them draw how they feel.

  • Limit exposure to scary content. Be mindful of the movies, TV shows, and stories your child is exposed to, as these can sometimes exacerbate fears and anxieties.

  • Praise brave behavior. Acknowledge and praise your child when they manage a separation well. Positive reinforcement can encourage them to continue facing their fears.

Remember, each child is unique, and what works for one may not work for another. It’s important to be patient and attentive to your child’s needs as you help them navigate their feelings of separation anxiety.

Separation Anxiety Disorder

When separation anxiety persists or interferes with your child’s daily activities, it may be a sign of separation anxiety disorder, a condition that requires professional evaluation, treatment, and support. Separation anxiety disorder can start as early as preschool age (and can even occur in teenagers and adults) and is characterized by excessive fear or anxiety about separation from those to whom the child is attached. If your child’s separation anxiety goes on for a long period or it seems intense to the extent that it disrupts normal activities, they may have a separation anxiety disorder.

This disorder can often be caused by big life changes or stresses that may have resulted in a child losing a loved one or being separated for a long period of time. A family history of anxiety disorders may also be a risk factor.

If you suspect your child has separation anxiety disorder, contact your healthcare provider for an evaluation.

Separation Anxiety for Parents

Understanding your child’s separation anxiety involves introspection about your own feelings as well. If you notice your child happily running off to their classroom without a backward glance, it might stir feelings or questions in you about their eagerness to say goodbye. Remember, children are incredibly observant and can pick up on your emotions quite easily. They might sense your reluctance to part and mirror that sentiment. It’s important to remember that even if you’re feeling sad, these moments of separation can help your little one develop their independence, confidence, and maturity, which will be beneficial for strong and healthy relationships in the future.

It’s beneficial to share your feelings about these moments with a partner, friends, or other parents. The emotional burden becomes lighter when shared, and it can make it easier for your child to adapt to separations.

Creating a goodbye ritual can significantly ease the parting process. This could be something straightforward like exchanging waves or blowing kisses to each other. Additionally, planning enjoyable activities for your reunion can give both you and your child something to look forward to. Whether it's a trip to the library or a play session at home, these plans can make the goodbye less daunting and the return something eagerly anticipated.

When to Contact Your Healthcare Provider

When considering whether to contact your healthcare provider about your baby, toddler, or child’s separation anxiety, look for the following:

  • If the separation anxiety is intense and continues to persist beyond the typical developmental age, impacting your child’s ability to engage in normal activities.

  • When the anxiety affects daily routines, such as going to school, interacting with peers, or participating in normal family activities.

  • If your child is having irrational or excessive worries about being separated, such as fears of getting lost or being kidnapped.

  • If your child experiences physical symptoms related to anxiety, such as panic attacks, stomachaches, chest pain, or headaches, that do not have a clear medical cause.

  • If the child begins to regress in areas where they previously demonstrated independence, such as toilet training or self-feeding.

  • If you have concerns about overall development or if the separation anxiety seems out of character for your child’s developmental stage.

In any of these cases, it’s advisable to consult your healthcare provider for an evaluation and guidance. They can help determine if the separation anxiety is within normal developmental boundaries or if further assessment and intervention might be needed. Always trust your instincts as a parent or caregiver; if you’re concerned, it’s worth seeking professional advice.

The Bottom Line

Separation anxiety is a natural part of your baby’s development as they move toward toddlerhood and become more independent. Separation anxiety can start in babies as early as 4 months old, but commonly starts around 8 months, and generally peaks when babies are about 10 to 18 months old. However, your toddler or older child may also experience periods of separation anxiety, especially if they’re experiencing big changes in their life. Consider trying some of the tips in this article to help your little one get through separation anxiety, and speak to your healthcare provider for more advice. Keep in mind that in time this difficult phase will pass.

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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 American Academy of Pediatrics and the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists. 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.