A guide to separation anxiety in babies

separation anxiety

by Emily Gilbert |
Updated on

You’ve finally got your baby’s sleep routine sorted (hurrah!) – but now baby's started waking up in the night and crying for no reason at all. And hates being left alone, too. It’s all very confusing.

It could be possible that your little one is suffering from separation anxiety, which is a completely normal development milestone – and shows just how amazing the bond between you and your baby is.

What is separation anxiety?

It seems to happen overnight. One day your baby is gurgling happily away, not noticing or caring if you’re in the room. The next, she starts crying inconsolably if you so much as step out of her sight, understandably leading you to feel guilty at times. Welcome to separation anxiety, an important, but an agonising stage that nearly all babies go through and can start as early as five or six months old. Separation anxiety can also affect toddlers too so it's normal for this stage to last for some time.

‘If you can’t even go to the loo without your baby getting upset, you can end up feeling both overwhelmed and suffocated,’ sayschild psychologist and midwife Ann Herreboudt. ‘From your baby’s point of view, this is how she starts developing independence and learns she is separate from you and can be safe without you.’

When does it most commonly occur?

Separation anxiety usually strikes between the ages of 6 and 12 months of age but can also strike when they are a toddler too. You may have left your baby alone and with others before, but at this stage, she is starting to worry when or if, you will return. This will normally all be gone by the time your child is about 2.5 years at the latest.

Separation anxiety most commonly occurs at night as the fear of being left alone and expected to fall asleep affects most babies and toddlers (and even some adults).

According to the experts at Calm Clinic, parents should do their best to not respond to their child if they are crying in the night for no reason.

'It can be hard, but you do not want the child to think or feel that crying will always get you. You also don't want to increase the attachment too much. Attachment is a good thing, but too much attachment can lead to trouble being alone.

'If you don't know if something is wrong (meaning they could have hurt themselves, etc.) then go in and check on them but do not make a fuss. Act like you're checking on a lamp or a door lock. You get in, you check, you kiss on the head, and then you get out. You stay as calm as possible and avoid bringing further stress to the situation.'

Does my baby have separation anxiety?

 Here are the key signs to look out for…

1) Your baby’s sleep is interrupted

It’s really common for a baby with separation anxiety to wake more than usual during the night and cry out for you – even if she was sleeping through until now. ‘This huge developmental change that occurs from roughly from nine to 18 months means that everything changes for babies and they need reassurance, especially at night,’ says sleep expert Sarah Ockwell-Smith. Your baby may also struggle to fall asleep, despite sticking to her usual bath and bedtime routine.

2) Your baby wakes up early

Separation anxiety can cause your baby to wake up early – and struggle to go back to sleep unless she’s with you. ‘Understand that as exhausting as it is, separation anxiety is a sign of great parenting to date,’ says Sarah. ‘It means your child has a good attachment with you and is a strong psychological sign that they will grow to be confident and independent.’

3) Your baby cries when left with someone else

You may have difficulty dropping your baby off at the childminders or at nursery, particularly when she’s been OK with this before. This is common with separation anxiety. ‘She may even be unhappy going to other people – even her dad,' says Sarah.

‘Try wearing an essential oil as a perfume and after four to six weeks encourage others to wear the same or use it in a diffuser around yours and their homes,’ Sarah suggests. ‘Your baby may associate the scent with you and may feel calmed by it when you aren’t there.’

4) Your baby gets upset when left alone

Popped to the loo and your baby started screaming? Signs of separation anxiety don’t appear solely at night – something you may have picked up on. ‘Baby’s with separation anxiety are often unhappy to be alone during the day, even if only for a minute or two,’ says Sarah. ‘Don't try to force independence. It won’t help if you leave your baby alone for any length of time at this age.’

You may notice that your tot isn’t just upset when you’re not around but will demand to be held more and generally be a lot clingier.

5) Your baby hates playing alone

If your little one suddenly goes off her favourite toys, don’t despair – it’s another really common sign she feels anxious. ‘You may find she’s no longer happy to play alone, even with toys that she previously loved,’ says Sarah. She’ll probably want you to play with her, which can be time-consuming for you but is a great way to reassure her that you’re not going anywhere.

6) Physically clingy with parents

Physical clinginess in children towards a parent often stems from the fear of being separated from their parents. That's why the physical clinginess can often come about when toddlers and small children go through a major life change such as starting nursery or school. While this is a completely normal and natural behaviour in children, it can make it harder for parents to leave their child with others. But rest assured, once your child realises they're safe with their carers and teachers, they will soon grow out of this phase and will feel comfortable with you leaving them.

7) Extreme crying

All babies and children cry of course, but when your little one is experiencing separation anxiety, it's likely that they'll feel more emotional than usual. As heartbreaking as seeing your child cry is, this phase will soon come to an end, like with the excessive clinginess.

‘Dealing with separation anxiety is tough but above all else remember “this too will pass”,’ says Sarah. ‘Separation anxiety is a normal developmental stage, but it is also transient and within a few months things will naturally get easier without you actually doing anything special.’ If you are struggling or in need of further help, don't hesitate to talk to your health visitor.

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