Many babies and young children experience separation anxiety - it's a very normal part of their development. Even so, it can still be distressing - for babies and sleep-deprived parents alike!
If you're worried that your baby may be showing signs of separation anxiety, you're in the right place. This article will give you a look at what separation anxiety is, how it can manifest in babies between 0 and 24 months, and how you can handle the issue if it arises to avoid letting it turn into a separation anxiety disorder.
What is separation anxiety in babies - and is it normal?
Babies and young children commonly experience separation anxiety - the anxiety that arises when they are separated from their parents or primary caregivers. It's a very normal part of childhood and can result in them acting particularly clingy, and even possibly crying when you're not around.
Separation anxiety initially crops up in babies between 4-12 months old, as they start to develop their sense of object permanence. Separation anxiety tends to follow a predictable sequence of behaviors when it occurs, those being protest, despair, and detachment.
The behaviors in each stage can vary according to the age of the baby and the stage of their development, but they tend to go as follows:
- Protest - baby will be upset and angry, cry, act clingy, reject other people
- Despair - baby will be much less active and withdraw, feeling hopeless
- Detachment - baby will appear to have moved on, accepting other people, interacting with them and objects such as food and toys
Continued separation can lead to problems down the line, such as separation anxiety disorder, but being proactive about it can prevent any lasting consequences. Furthermore, anxiety disorders like separation anxiety disorder tend to only be diagnosed in more extreme cases.
Though separation anxiety can leave babies and parents unsettled, there is a positive side. Separation anxiety is considered a sign that your baby is securely attached to you. Despite being distressing, you can rest assured that separation anxiety in babies is a perfectly normal stage of childhood development, and likely won't turn into an anxiety disorder.
Separation anxiety in babies 0-6 months old
Babies and very young children are more likely to experience separation anxiety towards the end of this timeframe, as babies under the age of 6 months generally have few issues when it comes to adjusting to others. It's possible for anxiety to show up in babies as young as 4 months, though it's slightly less common at this stage than at later stages.
What Causes it?
Between the ages of 0-6 months, some babies can begin to understand object permanence - they start to learn that people and things still exist even when they can't see them. The issue is, they don't understand time - so they don't know when you'll return. Understandably, this is unsettling!
How to tell if your baby has separation anxiety at this stage
As babies begin to learn object permanence, they can become upset and cry when left alone - whether that's leaving them with others, or simply leaving the room. They may start acting clingy, particularly in new situations such as being left with other people.
Separation anxiety in babies starts at around 8 to 9 months, tends to peak between 12 and 24 months, and may last until your child is 3 years old. It begins once babies form an attachment to their primary caregivers and gain an understanding of object permanence (that people still exist when out of sight). - BabyCenter
Babies experiencing separation anxiety may also wake and start crying in the night, even if they have previously slept soundly. They may even refuse to sleep if you don't stick by their side, crying when you leave and stopping when you come back.
What's the ideal solution?
Babies showing signs of separation anxiety at this stage need a lot of comfort, meaning cuddles and kisses are crucial! You also want to keep separations brief if you can - and stay upbeat and happy when you leave them so they don't pick up on your own anxiety!
From the experts
"Until her half birthday, your child will completely identify with her primary caregiver. Working on gaining control over her basic movements and reflexes, she can't even think about the process of forming her own identity during those first few months. Her primary concern is filling her immediate needs for food, love, and attention.
You may start to notice the first signs of budding independence at about 4 months, when your baby discovers that she can cry to get your attention. That's one of the first steps in learning that she has an independent will and that how she behaves can have an impact on others – namely you."
- Marcella Gates, medically reviewed by Paul Young, Pediatrician
Addressing separation anxiety in babies at this stage
If separation anxiety develops at this early age, you'll be glad to know there are many methods of easing your baby's worries and calming their nerves.
Regularly comfort your baby - this may seem obvious, but giving your little one regular cuddles is one of the best ways of forming a secure attachment, and making them feel safe and calm.
If they need extra comfort at night, we'd recommend putting them in our Zen One™ Classic, a weighted swaddle that mimics your soothing touch. You can even remove the sleeves, keeping your baby safe once they are able to roll over by themselves!
Practise short separations - to get a head start on easing your baby into separations, focus at this stage on keeping them brief, and with someone they are familiar with. This could be as simple as leaving them in a safe place in your home, going to another room, and returning after a very short while.
Letting them stay with familiar people like family members helps babies remain comfortable, and returning swiftly shows them that you'll always be back before too long.
Leave them at a good moment - leaving your baby can be easier if you're able to leave at a good time, though this may not always be possible. After they've had a nap or lunch can be a great time to leave as your baby is less likely to be tired, hungry, and restless in these moments - all of which can contribute to them getting upset and causing a fuss.
Act happy during goodbyes - even though it can be heartbreaking to say goodbye and leave while your baby is upset, try to at least act happy and positive. Feel free to comfort them, but don't linger, as they may pick up on your worries - which will only add to theirs!
It's important from an early age to allow your baby to experience goodbyes and reunions, as life is full of them. Starting early can reduce the risk of them becoming anxious in the future.
This stage in a baby's life is a great time to start encouraging good sleep habits, which can help them become a much better sleeper. You may find the following tips useful:
- Keep bedtimes consistent - a good routine around bedtime can do wonders in helping your baby calm down before bed.
- Make sure they're sleepy, but not over-tired - a sleepy but awake baby will begin to make an association with their bed and falling asleep! This also gives them time some extra time to wind down.
- Be calm and quiet if they need comfort - a baby with separation anxiety may need comfort during the night, but remember to stay calm and keep the lights dim when you tend to them. Keeping the atmosphere peaceful lets your baby know that it's still time to sleep.
6-month-old separation anxiety at night usually gets better by the time your baby turns two. or typically when the child reaches 3 years of age.
Sierra N., whose daughter was struggling to sleep through the night, wrote this in her review of our Zen One Classic:
"I tried 3 other different sleep sacks before this one and none of them worked well for my daughter. I decided to try this one out and she has been sleeping so much better. She is 8 weeks old and sleep anywhere from 5-7 hours a night when before she was only going 3 hours."
As your baby approaches 6 months old, their chances of developing separation anxiety increase. This is because babies typically begin to learn object permanence between 4-7 months old. Don't fret though, as in the next stage there are plenty more ways of reducing their separation anxiety!
Separation anxiety in babies 6-9 months old
Babies between 6-9 months are likely to have a much better understanding of object permanence than in the previous stage. Unfortunately, this means that babies between these ages are more likely to experience more robust separation anxiety!
What causes it?
During this stage, babies are becoming slightly more independent - they might be sitting by themselves, crawling, and even responding to words they recognize. They will also start to get more of an understanding of what being separated from you means, and with this comes increased uncertainty about being left alone. Just because they know you're about to leave, that doesn't mean they like it!
How to tell if your baby has separation anxiety at this stage
Babies at this age can become upset when around strangers or unfamiliar people. Despite gaining a better sense of routine, babies who develop separation anxiety at this age can also act shy and withdrawn around people they see fairly often, which can include family members they don't see as much.
The other signs of separation anxiety at this stage are very similar to the previous stage. Babies who develop separation anxiety between 6-9 months may still act clingy and cry if you leave them alone or with others, wake up and cry in the night, and refuse to sleep without you near.
Signs of separation anxiety in babies at night can be exhibited in various ways, such as clinging to parents or refusing to sleep alone.
What's the ideal solution for separation anxiety in babies at this stage?
This stage in your child's life is where making sure they have stability and consistent routines is key in soothing their separation anxiety. You also want to be slowly building to slightly longer separations, and encouraging their independence, both of which can help them feel more secure and calm.
9 month old separation anxiety at night is normal and can be alleviated by providing them with a comfort object, such as a stuffed animal or blanket. You can also try to keep a consistent bedtime routine to help your baby feel secure.
From the experts
"You can turn your goodbye into a fun and comforting ritual by giving your child an item from home that reminds them of you and by sticking to the same set of words and gestures each time you leave.
Incorporating the baby sign for work into the ritual (if you’re leaving to go to work) may reduce anxiety as it helps them understand where you’ll be while you’re gone."
- M.E. Picher, Developmental Psychologist And Registered Psychotherapist
Easing separation anxiety in babies at this stage
Your baby's improved sense of routine means there are various new ways to help them deal with separation anxiety. The methods in the previous stage still apply here, but you should find the following tips to be useful as well!
Separation Anxiety Tips
Children who are new to childcare should start with being left for brief periods and short distances at first.
Schedule separations after naps or feedings
Babies are more susceptible to separation anxiety when they're tired or hungry.
Develop a "goodbye ritual"
Rituals are reassuring and can be as simple as a special wave through the window or a goodbye kiss.
Keep familiar surroundings when possible and make new surroundings familiar
When the child is away from home, let him or her bring a familiar object.
Have a consistent primary caregiver
Consistency is extremely important. If your center is large, keeping the child with familiar staff will help.
Leave without fanfare & don't give in
Parents need to tell the child they are leaving and that they will return, then go-don't stall. Reassure them they will be fine, but set limits.
Minimize scary TV
Children are less likely to be anxious if they don't watch frightening shows.
Be consistent - a stable routine, whether that's leaving and returning at the same time each day, creating a goodbye ritual, or following a bedtime routine, can all add stability to your baby's life, which can help reduce stress.
Encourage their independence - your baby may well be crawling at this stage, making it a great time to try letting them crawl away from you to another safe space, as long as they have some sort of supervision. Further developing their independence can help your baby feel more secure in themselves, easing their uncertainty, and making them feel more safe on their own, all of which can help alleviate your child's separation anxiety.
Play games that involve separation - playing games with your little one, such as peekaboo, can allow them to experience brief separations in a way that is not only safe but also fun! Games like this also help your baby learn that you'll always come back to them after you leave.
Gradually introduce new caregivers - since babies who develop separation anxiety around this age can become upset around unfamiliar people, it can be a great idea to introduce any new caregivers slowly. This allows your baby to gradually become more familiar with them, letting them feel safer. Consider scheduling some time to interact with babysitters or even family members - anyone you plan on leaving your baby alone with.
As we mentioned, a consistent routine can bring some much-needed stability, and one at bedtime in particular can help an anxious baby sleep through the night. Here are a few steps you can follow to develop a consistent bedtime routine:
- Give them a bath, and change them into a clean nappy and some night clothes. We'd recommend our Zen Sack™ Classic, a safely weighted sleep sack that mimics your touch.
- If they have teeth, make sure to brush them!
- Dim the lights to build a calm atmosphere is you put them into bed.
- Gently wind down with some calm activities such as reading them a bedtime story.
- Stay calm as you give them a goodnight kiss, and quietly sing them a lullaby.
- Quietly leave them alone once they're asleep.
Make sure your baby stays in bed even if they wake up in the night, and whatever you do, don't sneak out! Waking up only to realise you've left the house will only increase their separation anxiety.
Valerie P from the website Babywise Mom also encourages establishing a routine:
"Have a routine for your baby. A routine will help prevent it, or at least minimize it. So there is an excellent chance a solid routine will help. Children with anxiety in general often do better when they know what to expect from their days. It helps them feel more in control and secure."
As your baby becomes a toddler, their further increasing independence can cause separation anxiety to peak between this stage and the next. Luckily though, with this independence comes even more methods of handling baby separation anxiety! If you stick with the previous methods and incorporate these new ones, you should soon see some improvements in your little one.
Separation anxiety in babies 18-24 months old
Though many babies can develop separation anxiety prior to this age, it is also common for it to manifest when they are between 18-24 months old. Separation anxiety tends to peak just prior or right at the beginning of this timeframe, so it's useful to be in the know regarding this particular time in your baby's life.
What causes it?
Separation anxiety can be particularly challenging during this time period, as your baby is rapidly becoming more and more independent. This results in them becoming even more aware of the time they spend separated from you - and they won't hesitate to kick up a fuss!
It's not all bad though! As your baby continues to gain independence throughout this stage, they will feel more and more secure in themselves. This combined with their improving memory can allow them to feel better faster than ever before.
How to tell if your baby has separation anxiety at this stage
The tell-tale signs of separation anxiety at this age tend to be very similar to what is seen in younger babies. If your baby develops separation anxiety, you can expect them to become upset when you try to leave them alone, such as at a nursery or with a babysitter - they may cry and cling to you.
Babies who develop separation anxiety between 18-24 months can also have trouble sleeping through the night, and might not want to sleep without you nearby. They might cry, and at this age will probably be able to call for you specifically!
What's the ideal solution?
This age range coincides with the time where many babies have a rapid increase in the amount of words they learn. This makes it the perfect time to talk to them about your separations! If your baby develops separation anxiety at this age, you can ease their worries by giving them a simple explanation of what is happening, keeping it child-friendly so they understand.
From the experts
"Follow through on promises. It's important to make sure that you return when you have promised to. This is critical — this is how your child will develop the confidence that he or she can make it through the time apart." - KidsHealth, reviewed by Jennifer Shroff Pendley, PhD
Easing separation anxiety in babies at this stage
At this stage in your child's life, there are more ways than ever to help soothe their separation anxiety. As with the previous age range, tips for younger children can still apply, but you should definitely give the following tips a try.
Build up to longer separations - when your baby is very young, it can help to begin by practicing short separations. As they grow older and approach the ages of 18-24 months, you want to gradually build up to longer separations, in less familiar locations, with less familiar people. A gradual build-up helps your baby increase their tolerance for separation as they learn that even after a longer time, you will return.
Play games involving separation - prior to this stage, games such as peekaboo can be helpful in letting your baby experience separations in a safe and fun environment. Now they are approaching 2 years of age, you may be able to play hide and seek as well! Hide and seek can be another brilliant game for babies struggling with separation anxiety, as it further reinforces the fact that being separated in a safe environment doesn't have to be scary, and you will always return to them.
Talk to your baby - if they're at the stage where they are quickly learning language, use this to your advantage! Here's a quick checklist of things you could talk to them about, all the while keeping it very child-friendly and simple:
- Explain to them what is happening - tell them you're going to work, but will be back. Use a timeframe they will understand. For example, if it's true, tell them you'll be back after they've had their lunch, or a nap - and always return on time, to help them build trust!
- Tell them what you'll do once you come back - this gives them something to look forward to! For example, tell them that once you return, you two are going for a little walk in the park. Having something to think about can help pass the time, and keep your little one's mind occupied, even if it's just for a while.
- When you get back, greet your baby with enthusiasm and tell them you missed them - even if they're unhappy with you, this shows them that you love them and want to get back to them, which is reassuring.
If your baby's separation anxiety is causing problems during the night, consider clothing them in our Zen Sack™ Classic, which is gently weighted, and designed to soothe just like your touch!
Cindy L wrote this for the website Houston Moms, regarding leaving her son at daycare:
"Lots of days I headed out the door and once he spotted me and started crying, I ran right back into his arms. I gave him a big hug, explained that I would always be back, and tried to head back out. This time, he was even more devastated. I had given him false hope that we were to hold hands and go back home or that I would stay.
The next few days, I did the same things before I left: goodbye, I love you, hug, kiss, walk out, and don’t come back. After three or so days, he would stop crying/whining once I closed the door behind me. Don’t get me wrong, after two months, it’s still hard, but it’s much better."
Since separation anxiety usually peaks either just before or during this stage, children between 2 and 3 years should mainly just show improvements until they grow out of it. Make sure to keep an eye on them though, as if it does not improve, or you're concerned about separation anxiety disorder or any other anxiety disorder developing, you may need to get some help from a pediatrician.
That's not to say you should be worried - if you make use of methods such as the ones we've written about, your baby should show some relief from separation anxiety before the need to ask for help!
Tips on addressing baby separation anxiety when leaving them with a caregiver
Helping your baby form a strong bond with you or their other caregivers is one of the best ways to alleviate their separation anxiety, as it helps them feel much more secure.
Here are a few of the ways you can ensure a strong bond is formed between your baby and their caregiver:
- Give your baby attention - this can be anything from cuddling them to changing their diaper, to feeding them. As long as their needs are being met by their caregiver, babies will learn to trust them.
- Make sure that your baby is gently soothed and calmed when upset.
- Ensure that your baby's various signs and signals are being understood and that your baby knows their caregiver understands them!
- If new activities are being introduced to your baby, make sure it is done gently and softly.
- Let your baby experience skin-to-skin contact. Breastfeeding is a great way of forming a bond, and so is giving your baby a massage!
- Ensure your baby is experiencing play - reading, singing, and playing games are all fun ways to bond with your baby.
When to call your pediatrician about newborn separation anxiety disorder
Newborn separation anxiety appears commonly in babies and young children. Regardless, if your baby has developed separation anxiety, you may feel the need to contact your pediatrician or doctor for support if you're concerned that it could turn into an anxiety disorder.
You can contact a pediatrician or doctor if you have any particular concerns about childhood separation anxiety disorder, but there are some instances in which it is particularly important. You should contact someone for support if your baby or young child:
- Continues to experience intense separation anxiety for an extended period of time
- Is having their daily life activities and experiences interrupted by separation anxiety
- Is experiencing panic attacks
In these cases, your child's symptoms may indicate baby separation anxiety disorder or another kind of anxiety disorder.
Contacting someone for support in any of these circumstances can be crucial for preventing any problems further down the line, such as the development of separation anxiety disorder. You should also contact your doctor or pediatrician if you're worried about any other anxiety disorders, such as adult separation anxiety disorder, panic attacks, or different mental disorders.
Childhood Separation Anxiety Disorder is generally only diagnosed if a child shows excessive worry, or if their anxiety persists for longer than what is to be expected from their particular stage of development.
Any kind of anxiety disorder can be worrying to think about, but it's important to remember that many babies experience anxiety and fear at some stage. Most children will have outgrown baby separation anxiety by the time they are three years old, and are unlikely to develop separation anxiety disorder.
Parental Anxiety and Its Effect on Separation Anxiety in Babies
It's easy to underestimate how attuned babies are to their parents' emotional states. It’s believed that parental anxiety can indeed influence a baby's temperament and stress levels.
This is particularly true for separation anxiety in babies, where a parent's own fears and apprehensions can amplify a baby's distress
Emotional Contagion: The Science Behind the Synchrony
Emotional contagion is a well-documented psychological phenomenon where emotions and related behaviors quickly spread from one person to another. In a parent-baby dyad, if a parent is anxious, their baby may mirror those feelings. Therefore, as a parent, your emotional regulation becomes crucial in helping your baby manage their anxiety.
Techniques for Managing Your Own Anxiety
Mindfulness techniques such as deep breathing, grounding exercises, and progressive muscle relaxation can be quick and effective ways to manage acute anxiety.
The more in control you are of your own emotional state, the easier it will be for your baby to find their emotional equilibrium. We’ll provide more coping mechanisms for parents raising a baby with separation anxiety below.
Coping Mechanisms for Parents Struggling With Baby Separation Anxiety
Managing baby separation anxiety can push even the most patient parents to their emotional limits. But remember, you can't pour from an empty cup; taking care of yourself is part of taking care of your baby.
Self-care is a Necessity, Not a Luxury
Contrary to popular belief, self-care isn't a selfish act but a necessary one. Designate pockets of time in your week solely for yourself—this could be anything from a 20-minute bubble bath to an hour of yoga. This is not just about relaxation but about emotional reset and resilience building.
Open Communication with Your Partner
If you're co-parenting, keep lines of communication open about how you're feeling. Divide responsibilities and decide on a 'tag-out' system for when one of you feels overwhelmed.
Professional Support: When and Why to Seek It
If you find that your stress levels are unmanageable or that your own anxiety is worsening your baby’s separation anxiety, it might be time to seek professional guidance.
Therapists, counselors, or even support groups can offer invaluable coping strategies. Pediatricians can also offer medical perspectives on managing separation anxiety, thereby helping you differentiate between what's typical and what might require further attention.
Common questions about separation anxiety in babies 0-24 months
We’ve covered most of what you need to know about baby separation anxiety. But before bringing this conversation on newborn separation anxiety to a close, here are some of the most commonly asked questions we get asked.
Why do babies develop separation anxiety?
Separation anxiety can begin when babies learn object permanence - the idea that objects exist even when out of sight. This can result in them becoming anxious when left alone, as they don't understand time, so they don't know when you will return.
How do I tell if my baby has separation anxiety?
Your child may show several signs of separation anxiety, including:
- Getting upset and clingy, and possibly crying, when you try to leave them
- Acting shy and withdrawn around strangers, as well as occasionally people they are more familiar with
- Struggling to sleep through the night, waking up crying, and refusing to sleep without you around.
How can I handle baby separation anxiety disorder?
There are lots of methods of helping your baby if they are experiencing separation anxiety and you want to prevent separation anxiety disorder or other anxiety disorders from developing, including the following:
- Practise with shorter separations with familiar people, and slowly build up to longer separations, with more unfamiliar people
- Comfort your child when they're upset, but avoid lingering when leaving, as it can increase their worries
- Develop routines to bring stability and consistency to your baby's life, reducing stress - these can be goodbye rituals and bedtime routines
- If they'll understand, try to talk to them about what is going on - tell them you have to go, but you'll be back after they've had their nap (as long is it's true!)
When does separation anxiety start?
Separation anxiety generally emerges around 6 to 8 months of age, although it can appear as early as 4 months.
This is a period when many babies begin to comprehend object permanence - the understanding that things continue to exist even when they can't see them.
Initially, separation anxiety can be subtle but may escalate as your baby grows more aware and attached. However, each child is different, so these timelines can vary. Several factors can influence when separation anxiety starts, including temperament, social environment, and even the caregiving style.
What’s the link between developmental milestones and newborn separation anxiety?
Certain developmental milestones like crawling, walking, or even beginning daycare can trigger episodes of separation anxiety. These milestones, while exciting, change the baby’s day-to-day experiences, sometimes making them more aware of your absence.
Pay close attention to your baby’s behavior after reaching a new milestone. This will allow you to prepare for any changes in their emotional well-being, including the onset or escalation of baby separation anxiety.
How long does baby separation anxiety last?
How long separation anxiety lasts can vary from child to child, but generally, it should clear up in a few weeks.
If your child's separation anxiety persists for an extended period of time, and you have concerns about separation anxiety disorder or any other mental disorders, you should reach out to a pediatrician or doctor who can provide medical advice.
Impact on Sleep Patterns
Separation anxiety can significantly disrupt your baby's sleep patterns. Babies who were once good sleepers might start waking up more frequently, appearing agitated, and demanding more comfort measures from the caregiver.
Maintaining a consistent newborn sleep schedule can help. The familiarity of a bedtime story, a warm bath, or soft music can provide comfort and ease some of the anxiety.
You can also invest in their sleepwear by getting them either a sleep sack vs swaddle, right here at Nested Bean. We have a bamboo swaddle, zipper swaddle, or arms up swaddle - which we consider to be the best transitional swaddle.
Final Thoughts on Baby Separation Anxiety
At this point, it’s time we brought this guide on baby separation anxiety to a close. Separation anxiety can be very tough, for both you and your little one. Whilst it's certainly not fun, separation anxiety can actually be seen as a good sign, as it shows your baby is forming a very secure attachment to you!
Baby separation anxiety, though it has its challenges, is a completely normal stage of development for a child to go through. Now that you know how to address newborn separation anxiety, you can do your part to create a sense of calm in your child. By extension, you’ll be able to rest a bit easier yourself when you leave your baby.
Our blog has more resources to empower you to be the best parent possible, including how to get newborn to sleep at night, when to stop napping, home remedies for teething baby at night, the benefits of co sleeping, what to do if your newborn won't sleep unless held, when to stop using sleep sacks, why swaddle babies, sleep training newborn babies, and more.
For now, though, why not put some of these baby separation anxiety tips to the test? We hope this resource helps you overcome separation anxiety in babies once and for all!