Does your baby have separation anxiety? How to tell
Separation anxiety is something that many babies experience - it's a very normal stage to go through. Nevertheless, it's an unsettling thing for a baby to experience, as well as being distressing for parents!
If you're concerned your baby is suffering from separation anxiety, knowing the different signs shown by different ages can be very useful in helping you deal with it - that's where we come in.
This blog will cover the typical indications of separation anxiety, and look at some helpful tips on how to soothe your little one. We'll also go over what it looks like when a baby's anxiety might be more serious, and when they may be showing symptoms of separation anxiety disorder.
In this article
What is separation anxiety?
Sometimes babies and young children will show fear and worry when separated from their parents or primary caregiver - this is separation anxiety. Though it can be concerning, it's a very common thing for children up to three years old to experience, and is a sign of emotional development.
What are the typical signs of separation anxiety?
There are numerous common signs shown by babies suffering from separation anxiety. They may act shy and withdrawn around strangers, and start resisting other caregivers, such as babysitters. They may cling to you when you try to leave them, and might also cry and throw tantrums.
They may also have trouble sleeping. Many will wake up during the night and cry once they realise you're not around. They might refuse to sleep unless you stay by their side, and cry if you attempt to leave them.
Separation anxiety - different cues by age
The signs of childhood separation anxiety can be similar through their various stages of development, but there can be variations in how they appear.
Here's a guide for what to look out for at particular ages, as well as some tips for how to handle separation anxiety at each stage:
Separation anxiety in babies 4-6 months
Around this age is when babies begin to understand object permanence - the idea that things still exist when they can't be seen. This leads to separation anxiety, as they know when you've left, but don't know when you'll be back!
Signs your baby is experiencing separation anxiety at this stage include:
- Getting upset, crying when left on their own or with unfamiliar people
- Clinging when you attempt to leave, especially when in new situations and environments
- Waking up and crying during the night - regardless of whether or not they have already started sleeping soundly on their own
- Not wanting to sleep without you nearby, crying if you attempt to leave
If your baby is showing signs of separation anxiety, here are some suggestions of what you can do to help them:
Start by practising short separations, with familiar people in familiar environments
These can include briefly leaving them with a family member, or simply leaving them somewhere safe and leaving the room.
Comfort them often
Cuddles and kisses make them feel safe and secure, both when they're upset and when they aren't. Just make sure not to linger if you comfort them during a goodbye, so you don't make them think you might stay!
Play games such as peekaboo which involve moments of separation
This is a helpful and fun way of letting your baby experience separations, while reinforcing the fact that though you may leave them, you will return.
Try to leave them at a good time, and act positive when you do
This could be after they've been fed or had a nap, so they're not hungry or tired. Acting positive prevents them on picking up your nerves, which can increase their own anxiety!
If they're struggling at night, try to establish a good routine
This can help them settle. If they need comfort during the night, keep the lights low and be gentle, so they know it's not time to wake up. You could also try dressing them in our Zen One™ Classic swaddle, which is safely weighted to mimic your touch. It also has removable sleeves, which can keep your baby safe even if they can roll themselves over.
Separation anxiety in babies 9-12 months
At this stage, it's likely your baby has learned object permanence. This and their increasing independence (they might be crawling!) can lead to more robust separation anxiety, as they're more aware of separations.
Around this time babies have a better understanding of what you say to them, but struggle to express their own feelings, which can make them even more frustrated! Luckily, there are many ways of helping them out.
If separation anxiety develops, your baby may show signs such as:
- Continued shyness and anxiety around strangers, as well as more familiar people, despite their improved sense of routine
- Refusal to engage in situations or activities in which they are separated from you
- Clinginess, getting upset, crying when you leave - as well as resisting and rejecting other caregivers
- Struggling to sleep through the night - waking and crying, refusing to sleep without you
The following tips may be helpful if your baby is experiencing separation anxiety in this stage:
Start to introduce more unfamiliar caregivers
It can be useful to set aside time for your baby to get used to relatives and potential babysitters or day-care workers. Though your baby may still act withdrawn, familiarity still helps them feel secure.
Gradually increase separation time
As your baby gets older, it's important to let them experience slightly longer separations than before, so they can begin to build up more of a tolerance, which should help them feel more secure.
Let them embrace their independence
If your baby is crawling, letting them crawl to a safe area without you (as long as they're under some sort of supervision) can help feel more secure and confident when they're by themselves.
Make sure their days are consistent
Their sense of routine is improving at this stage, so consistency can really help relieve stress. Consider coming up with a goodbye ritual, or finding a bedtime routine to follow. Anything that brings some stability!
If you follow a bedtime routine and your little one is still struggling at night, you could try using our Zen Sack™ Classic, which is gently weighted to comfort them just like your touch.
Separation anxiety in babies 18-24 months
Separation anxiety generally peaks between this stage and the previous stage, but many babies will develop it now as opposed to when they are younger infants. This is because as a toddler, they are the most independent they have ever been - and with more independence comes more experiences, and more experiences means more uncertainty!
The signs of separation anxiety at this age are largely similar to what is seen in younger babies, and includes:
- Becoming upset, throwing tantrums, and resisting caregivers who aren't you when being left alone, such as with a babysitter or at a day-care
- Refusing to play by themselves
- Having trouble sleeping through the night - they may cry, or call for you with words if they have begun speaking!
There are multiple methods of easing separation anxiety at this age, including:
Similarly to how playing peekaboo can be useful in allowing younger babies to experience separations, now they're slightly older and crawling/walking on their own, you could try playing hide-and-seek. This can be a way of teaching the that separations aren't always frightening, especially when they are in the safety of their home or a day-care.
Further increasing separation time
It's helpful to slowly work towards longer separations starting from when your baby is much younger, so they can become more tolerant and secure in themselves. There may be setbacks along the way, but as long as you continue to gently push them ever so slightly, they'll learn to trust that you'll come back even after longer times.
Using words to soothe them
At this age, babies pick up new words fast. Even if they're not speaking very much, they will definitely have a much better understanding of what you tell them than at earlier ages. Try letting them know what you'll do with them once you see them again, or tell them that you'll see them again once they've had their dinner, or a nap. Make sure to also let them know how much you love them, and that you missed them when you were away!
Following through on promises
If you do tell your little one when you'll be back, or what you'll be doing later in the day, ensure you don't break your promise. This allows them to build up greater trust in you, and confidence in themselves, as they understand that you will return.
Even at this age, babies and toddlers can have difficulty sleeping the night when separated from you. If you're looking for a way to complement the methods you are already using, consider trying out our Zen Sack™ Classic for your baby, which is safely weighted to calm them like your touch.
Separation anxiety: New mom hack
Carrie Bruno from The Mama Coach (writing for the website Jillian Harris) shared this tip for helping your baby deal with separation anxiety:
"Fill their bucket - Spend quality one on one time playing with your child before you leave (if possible). This can be hard if your mornings are hectic i.e. trying to get your child dressed and ready, loading them into the car for daycare, trying not to be late for work, etc. Set your alarm clock 30 minutes earlier in order to get yourself ready before waking your child. Having breakfast with them or playing a quick game or session of make-believe can help reduce the tears at drop off. The more securely your child feels attached to you, the easier it will be to leave them with someone else."
When is it more serious than common separation anxiety - separation anxiety disorder
If your child's separation anxiety persists for an extended period of time, or their anxiety is intense, there is a small chance they may be developing separation anxiety disorder.
Separation anxiety disorder is uncommon, but is more serious than simple separation anxiety. It's diagnosed if a child's separation anxiety is more intense than what's expected of their age, is interrupting their daily lives, or their intense separation anxiety lasts longer than normal. If untreated, it can lead to adult separation anxiety disorder, in the future. Symptoms of separation anxiety disorder include:
- Excessive, prolonged, or intense separation anxiety
- Panic attacks
- Physical symptoms such as headaches and tummyaches
- Nightmares about separation
- Excessive worry and fear
If diagnosed in a child, separation anxiety disorder can be treated with cognitive behavioral therapy. Separation anxiety is a normal part of childhood development, and most babies outgrow it by the time they are three, without developing separation anxiety disorder. If you have concerns about your baby, want more information on how to prevent separation anxiety disorder or any other anxiety disorder, contact a pediatrician or doctor for more advice.