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Separation anxiety in babies and children

Newborn babies are entirely dependent on their parents – they depend on us for every aspect of their survival and it will be many years before your child is ready to meet the world head-on without you. Most children will depend on their parents for many aspects of their welfare until they are at least 16-years-old and many more will continue to be dependent in some way — whether it is emotional, financial or both — well into their adulthood.

However, while your baby will slowly become more and more independent, separation anxiety is likely to play a part in many babies’ development journey.

Separation anxiety is a natural part of a child’s cognitive development: babies and very young children have no concept of time and do not understand that you will return if you leave their proximity, even if it is only for half a minute – to a baby it can feel as if they have been abandoned. This is because their brains are still developing and they have not yet achieved the idea of object permanence.

Object permanence

Object permanence is a psychological concept that refers to a person’s ability to understand that objects and events are exist independently – i.e. that an object or person still exists even if it cannot be seen. Babies cannot comprehend object permanence because they lack the experience and cognitive ability to form a mental representation of the object.

The most obvious example of this phenomenon is the game of ‘peekaboo’ – if you hide a toy under a blanket your child will act as if the toy has disappeared and will be surprised when you reveal it. A child who has achieved object permanence will actively seek the toy out, perhaps by trying to remove the blanket in order to view the object themselves.

This, therefore, explains why some children may become distraught if their parent leaves the room: they are cognitively incapable of conceptualising the fact that their parent will return. According to Piaget’s theory of cognitive development, when a child is able to achieve object permanence it is said to have developed from the sensorimotor stage to the preoperational stage(1).

When does separation anxiety occur?

Separation anxiety can occur in older children and even in adults, but it is most common when children are between 6 months and 3 years old (2) and is most common in unfamiliar situations and environments, particularly if there is a stranger present.

It can seem baffling if your baby starts to become severely distressed when someone who is not you comes close when they had previously been perfectly happy to be passed around family, friends, and strangers. However, this is a natural stage of childhood development and shows that your child now has at least some understanding of your special relationship and their level of dependence on you.

Of course, the anguish caused by separation anxiety can be very upsetting and frustrating, but try to be reassured; it simply shows that your child is becoming more aware of the world around them.

How to tell if your child is experiencing separation anxiety?

Common signs that your child may be experiencing separation anxiety include:

  • Your baby cries when they are put down or when you leave the room.
  • Your baby becomes nervous, tense, irritable or tearful around unfamiliar or less familiar people.
  • Your baby is unwilling to be looked after or held by even familiar family or friends.
  • Your baby is resistant to being put to bed and having you leave the room.
  • Your baby or infant wakes and cries through the night despite being fed and having a clean nappy.
  • Your toddler becomes ‘clingy’ and physically resistant to you leaving their side.

Helping your child to cope with separation anxiety

It can be distressing and emotionally exhausting trying to help a child manage their separation anxiety. However, it is important to remember that both your child’s anxiety and your response to it are entirely normal. In fact, every time your child experiences separation anxiety it is an opportunity for you to model secure attachment and to help your child better process what’s happening.

Yes, it may seem unsentimental, but your child will adapt to being without you for a few hours, and for those parents whose children seem not to experience separation anxiety, don’t worry; they do love you, it is just that they feel secure enough to successfully handle separation, so consider it a ringing endorsement of the parenting job you have done so far.

Tips to help your child cope with separation anxiety

While separation anxiety is a normal part of your child’s development, there are a number of things you can do to alleviate the distress, for you and your baby.

    1. When you are with your child, provide plenty of tactile time and cuddles so that they feel secure in your relationship.
    2. Listen to your child and provide comfort and reassurance at times when they are afraid.
    3. Encourage your child’s independence and instinct to explore – for example, by letting them crawl or walk into another room on their own for a moment. This will help them get comfortable with the idea of their own company.
    4. If you know you are going to have to spend time away from your baby, rehearse with them by briefly exiting the room before coming back. Eventually, they will learn that you do return and they have not been abandoned.
    5. For older children suffering separation anxiety, you should talk about what you will do when you are reunited after time apart. This will help your child more easily conceptualise the temporariness of the separation as well as creating some positive associations.
    6. Leave something comforting with your baby or child that reminds them of you – for example, an item of your clothing.
    7. Attempt a positive goodbye. This can be hard, particularly if your child is screaming and clinging on to you, but if your child picks up on your anxiety and upset, it will make it harder for them. So, try to be brief and positive.


Every child will experience separation anxiety to a greater or lesser degree – it is a normal part of development. It can take a while for a baby to develop the cognitive tools to understand that if you leave a room, you will be coming back. While for older children being left with a childminder or at nursery school, the fear of abandonment can be extreme.

Fortunately, by encouraging your child and using the tips mentioned above, you can successfully model secure behaviours that will help your child to lessen their experience of separation anxiety. You should stay positive in the knowledge that this is a stage of development and will pass.