Mother and Baby

Separation Anxiety

Separation anxiety may be a normal phase for your baby but chances are it’s pretty stressful for you, too. Which is why you need survival tactics...

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, he’s crying inconsolably if you so much as step out of his sight. Welcome to separation anxiety, an important, but agonising, stage that nearly all babies go through and can start as early as five or six months old.

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

All well and good, but how do you cope with the stress that an afternoon at granny’s is equivalent to neglect? 

Signs of separation anxiety

It is quite straightforward with toddlers, but with tiny babies, how do you know that it is the fear of losing you that is distressing your baby? Read the signs of separation anxiety we've outlined for you.

Separation anxiety in babies

Separation anxiety in toddlers occurs when your little one has realised that Mum is an individual who they appreciate and need. Younger babies usually lack the concept of different individuals - it’s all about senses: smells, sounds, and the feeling of being soothed. When younger babies cry until being held by their mums, that is exactly what they miss and seek - the particular way they are soothed.

When does it most commonly occur?

Separation anxiety usually strikes between the ages of 6 and 12 months. You may have left your baby alone and with others before, but at this stage he 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.

What can you do to help? 

Keep your mum-baby trust

From birth until now, you’ve been his go-to person. You feed him, change his nappy and are there for him every moment of the day. Then, suddenly, you have to go to work or to the shops and your baby behaves like you’ve abandoned him.

‘Nothing you’re doing is damaging your child,’ says Sue Atkins, author of Parenting Made Easy: How To Raise Happy Children. ‘Whether it’s going to the kitchen or to work, this is a necessity of life and you have to do it.’ 

It may sound like tough love, but be straight with your baby. ‘Tell him when you’re going that you’ll be back,’ says Ann. ‘Then, when you do return, his trust in you grows.’ Being anxious or uncertain when you leave will only make him anxious and confirm what he already thinks – that he’s not safe without you.

The reality check

When you see his crumpled face, you may be tempted to ditch your plans to stay and comfort him. ‘It can feel like you’re the only one who can reassure your baby, but a child usually settles about five or 10 minutes after you’ve gone,’ says Sue. ‘Focus on that, rather than drag out your goodbye and exacerbate the situation.’

You need to feel happy and comfortable with your baby’s carer and they need to help you when separation anxiety strikes.

‘You should be able to leave knowing he’s going to have a nice time, so speak to whoever’s looking after your baby and ask her to distract or engage your baby with a fun activity when the crying starts,’ says Sue. Within 15 minutes of leaving he’ll have forgotten all about it.

How to say bye to your baby

If his mum just ups and leaves, won’t that make him shy and unconfident with people in general? It can – if you sneak off and don’t say goodbye properly.

‘This leaves your baby still looking for you and makes it harder for his carer to distract or comfort him,’ says Ann. ‘But, if he knows you’re going, he’ll transfer his needs to those around him, which will strengthen and encourage his social skills.’

Your baby will sense any fear, so fake your own confidence to give him some of his own. ‘Your child is looking to you to be assertive and reassuring, and will pick up on any anxiety,’ says Sue. So when you leave, be positive.

'Your child is looking to you to be assertive and reassuring, and will pick up on any anxiety'

Will he ever get over this?

In your darkest moments, you probably have visions of a teenager clinging to your ankles as you go off to work.

If it’s got this bad, it’s time to try some new tactics. ‘If you’re struggling to leave your toddler at nursery, get your partner to do the drop off for a few days,’ says Sue. Try introducing a cuddly toy as an extra comfort or have a cute leaving ritual where you kiss his hand, close it and he keeps the kiss in his pocket until you come back.

Baby resentment

You left him crying and, when you return, he won’t even talk to you. ‘Babies and toddlers do get cross with you and will let you know,’ says Ann. ‘By ignoring you, he’s saying, “You left me. You can’t just expect me to forgive you.”

But even if it looks like he’s transferred all your love to his carer, a baby never forgets who his mother is. Trust us, separation anxiety will eventually go.

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