Separation anxiety in babies and children

Child hiding behind mum's legs

Just as you’ve reconciled with yourself the idea of going back to work and all your childcare plans are laid out, you hit another snag. Your child simply cannot bear the idea of being apart from you and develops all the properties of Velcro. However, while it’s heartbreaking for both of you separation anxiety is a perfectly normal stage of child development and, like the broccoli-on-the-ceiling stage, it will pass

What is separation anxiety?

As far as you’re concerned, it’s the bit when you're off to work and your baby or toddler suddenly locks onto you and howls as you attempt to leave.

Separation anxiety is a natural part of human psychological development. If babies of yore hadn’t felt worried about Mum leaving them, they would have wandered off into the mouths of sabre-toothed tigers and that sort of thing (there’s one to add to your Happy List of parenting anxieties you will never have to deal with).

It’s an entirely normal part of child development and, crucially, would happen whether or not you went back to work – many a stay-at-home mum has looked on in astonishment as their child collapses with grief because Mummy has popped to the loo – so put aside any feelings of working mother guilt.

“Separation anxiety is the point when a child starts to realise s/he is a different person from mum (or whoever has been the main carer) and gets freaked out when you leave the room.”

When does separation anxiety start and how long does it last?

Most parents report the peak time for onset as being about eight or nine months. For some, the answer is to ensure their baby is well-settled with whoever is looking after them before that onset period. Or to wait until significantly after the ‘danger time’, if this is a realistic possibility. Unfortunately, this is about the time many parents have to return to work following maternity or paternity leave, so if that’s you, you’ll just have to grit your teeth and get through it.

“Separation anxiety starts to diminish from about 18 months. It's believed they become distressed when their carer is out of their sight because they cannot understand that the situation is temporary and believe they've been abandoned. Therefore, they are distressed for an understandable reason from their point of view.”

However, there’s no magic cure. Many parents find that, even if their child is settled in nursery or with another carer well before the age of six months, there can still be a period of separation anxiety further down the line. It may at least feel a bit less distressing for you if your baby is already used to their new carer/environment and you can feel absolutely sure the childminder isn’t secretly a werewolf or is sending your baby up chimneys as soon as your back is turned.

My child doesn’t have separation anxiety – should I be worried?

Some children never seem to show any particular signs of separation anxiety. Apart from making you feel like maternal mincemeat, this is a good thing and no reflection on how much your baby loves you. Honest.

“I do sometimes feel a bit paranoid that while other babies are flinging themselves into the pits of despair, mine is happily waving and kissing, or just running off to play!”

How can I help my child with separation anxiety?

Separation anxiety is different for all children, and you’ll know what works best to comfort your child. Maybe they have a favourite teddy that solves everything, or they like to be held in a certain way. Whatever it is, let the person caring for them know.

It’s awful seeing your child get upset, but don’t let them know that you’re also feeling the pressure as that’s really worrying for them. Wave at them cheerily and calmly and walk away confidently. You’re allowed to have a little sob in the car. Here are a few more tricks you can try to help with separation anxiety:

Let her practise being away from you

She’ll feel more secure if you slowly give her more space and allow her to find out she is OK with other people and with you at more of a distance. Just hang back slightly at mother and baby groups or see if you can hand her over to a friend of grandparent for just a little longer each time. If you’re really lucky you might get to do something exciting for yourself like load the dishwasher or have a pee before she starts shouting for you. Think of it as weaning her from her fear that she can't be without you, than 'weaning' her from you in particular.

Play peekaboo

Games like this show your baby that you don't actually disappear permanently when not in view. Think of peekaboo as a fun, happy “trial run”. If it goes well you can move onto hide-and-seek.

Leave her with a familiar object

Your child might feel comforted if you give her something she associates with you when you leave. This might be a muslin or scarf that smells of your perfume, or a favourite toy.

Prep her for what’s ahead

Talk to your toddler or baby about the day and what’s going to happen. For example, if you’re collecting her after lunch then tell her that she’ll have lunch at nursery where she’ll see Mrs X and play with little friend C – and then when you see her you will go to the shop together. This gives her something to look forward to and knowing what’s happening next will help her feel more confident and secure.

If possible, try not to go from 'all Mummy' to 'all childcare' in one fell swoop. If your baby is going to a childminder, see if the childminder will agree to visit you at home – this helps your child become familiar with her, but in a known environment. Similarly, if your new nanny can come for some shorter trial periods, this may ease the transition.

Nursery staff and childminders are well-versed in separation anxiety (yours won’t be the first motherclutcher they’ve seen, even on a particular day) and they will be expert at diverting your child’s attention and calming her down. And remember that all of this is an important stage in development. Stay strong – she is learning how to be an independent person of her own.