What is separation anxiety in babies and toddlers?
Separation anxiety is a normal part of your child’s development. It usually begins between 6-12 months and can last until they’re around three or four years old. As their awareness of the world and the people around them grows, they may become upset when away from mum or dad and wary of new faces.
The timing and intensity can vary widely from child to child. The good news is there are steps that you can take to help reduce the severity and distress for your little one (and yourself).
What are the signs of separation anxiety?
Your baby may have become clingy with one or both parents
Your baby cries when put down or when left with someone else
They display a lack of interest in playing by themselves
They are waking earlier or waking late at night (sleep problems)
They are refusing to sleep without a parent nearby
What can I do to help ease the distress of separation anxiety?
Childcare professional Julia Perry understands the distress separation anxiety can cause from both sides. “As a parent, there’s nothing harder than hearing your child scream when you walk out of the room. As a carer, especially if you’re a family member, it’s upsetting not being able to settle the little one.”
However, there are some ways to help your child feel more confident around separation.
Play games such as peek-a-boo and hide and seek with your baby or little one. These games will help them to learn that you don’t simply ‘disappear’ when out of their sight and that you’ll return even if you are apart sometimes.
Start practicing short separation sessions. Leave them with a trusted family member or friend, someone they’re comfortable with, and gradually work toward longer separations in less familiar settings.
Use simple language to explain to your toddler what will happen and how long you’ll be and prepare them for changes ahead of time.
Spend time together ahead of the separation, allowing your child to become familiar with the new places and people they will visit.
Give them something familiar to keep as a reminder or comforter while you are apart. Perhaps a piece of clothing that has your scent or a special photograph.
Make saying ‘goodbye’ a positive experience. Talk confidently and give them lots of affection and reassurance.
Talk about the positive and fun things that your child has done during their time with a childminder, grandparent, or nursery.
Tips to help with nursery or childminder handovers
Separation anxiety can often be an issue when you are handing over your baby or toddler to a nursery or childminder. Professional childminder and former primary school teacher Jodie Brown shares her advice on how to ease the distress for children and parents alike:
‘Babies and young children can feed off your emotions and can sense when you as a parent or carer are feeling stressed or anxious. Staying calm and relaxed yourself will help your baby or toddler feel reassured that there is nothing to be worried about.’
Empathy is important
‘I try not to placate parents with phrases like “don’t worry”, or “they’ll be fine”. Showing that you understand that it’s a distressing situation is much more helpful, so I might say something like, “I can see you and your little one are upset. It’s a big moment leaving each other. How can I help?”’
Make transitions quick when dropping off
‘Make it quick and consistent in your approach. Prolonged good-byes or hesitations will add to the child's anxieties. Make sure your child knows you are going and reassure them that you will be back.’
‘Something important for a childminder to consider when looking after a baby experiencing separation anxiety is babywearing (carrying a baby in a sling or carrier). That closeness can be an amazing way to settle and soothe – especially if they are used to that level of connection at home.’
Communication is everything
‘Your child’s carer or key worker needs to get to know you and your child as well as they can, and you can help them with this. Tell them about life at home, your preferences for your child and your worries. If you have a way you settle your child that works, let them know. Share any concerns with them so you can figure out solutions together.’
Settling in sessions work
‘Settling in sessions, where new children are invited to join in for a shorter period of time (either with or without their parents) are useful for both the child and the parent, especially if they are a first-time parent. Some children may benefit from more settling in sessions than others, depending on the individual.’
When to get help
By the time your child reaches around four years old, they should be able to be away from you for short periods of time. If they are still becoming extremely distressed, they could be experiencing separation anxiety disorder. According to Anxiety UK this affects around 4% of children, so if you feel concerned, contact your GP for more advice.