Separation Anxiety in Infants and Toddlers: What is It and What Can I Do About It?

Most all babies, at some point, will go through a type of separation anxiety.

Different development stages can trigger anxiety cues in children, making them upset and frightened at the idea of being separated from a parent. When you think about it, it makes complete sense. Biologically, infants are programmed to recognize their caregiver as the one who will keep them safe at all times, and so to be separated from this person can be very traumatic for little ones.

The good news is that “this too shall pass,” but until then, there are steps you can take to make the separation more manageable for both you and your baby.

When Does Separation Anxiety Most Commonly Occur?

Babies as young as six months old have shown signs of separation anxiety, but for most little ones, it will likely begin between 12 months to 18 months of age. Separation anxiety is loud and clear and easy to spot. Children most often show signs by crying, screaming, and grabbing hold of a parent who is about to leave the room. The child will likely refuse to go to another caregiver.  

What Can I Do About It?

Arrange a Meet and Greet. If your child is starting at a daycare facility, arrange for you and your child to visit the center at least two times prior to their official first day. Perhaps you can have lunch together with classmates and then come back again for playtime or arts and crafts. This is a super important step to allow your child to become comfortable with his caregiver, and his new environment. Your child will also see you happily interacting with his teacher, and therefore he will associate her as a safe person to be around. The first day may still bring tears, but emotionally your child will be much more secure after having prior been in this atmosphere.

The same philosophy applies if you are having a sitter come to your home. Invite her over a couple of different times prior to her first day with your child. Also, if it is truly the first time your child has been away from you, you will want to ease into leaving him all day with their caregiver. On day one, if your schedule permits, we suggest only heading out for about an hour. Then, as your child becomes more comfortable, you can increase the duration of each outing.

Bring an Item of Comfort. You will also want to remember to bring those items that will be a comfort to your little one while you are away. Share with their teacher how important their special blanket or stuffed animal is to your child. These items tend to have magic powers when it comes to settling an upset child.

Routine. Routine. Routine. Figure out a quick ritual that works for both you and your baby and stick to it every time you say goodbye. Predictable routines are crucial because they build trust in your child that although you will leave, you will also return. Try to stick with a quick kiss, a hug, and a familiar sentiment like, “Mommy is going to leave to go to work. I love you, and I will be back soon.”

Don’t Sneak Out. Oftentimes, parents think the “sneak out” method is the best approach, where they wait until their child is distracted and playing with the caregiver before sneaking out the back door. This has proven to only upset children even more once they realize that you are gone. To your child, it seems as though you have disappeared into thin air. As we mentioned above, kiss and hug your baby when you leave. Tell her that you are leaving, and also when you will be back.

Once You’re Gone, You’re Gone. Coming back in the house or a daycare center to check on your child will only make the separation harder for everyone. Trust in the caregiver that you have chosen, and know that your child’s tears most likely stopped minutes after you left the house.

How Should I Handle Nighttime Separation Anxiety?

As evening approaches, baby’s experiencing nighttime separation anxiety have a real fear of being separated from you. In the hours leading up to your baby’s bedtime, try to keep things as calm and peaceful as possible. Spend some extra time reading, singing, and cuddling together. It’s best to take the night rituals slow and steady rather than quickly going through the motions of a bedtime routine.

It is to be expected that your baby will cry for you after you have said goodnight and left the room. After several minutes, it’s fine to go in and comfort her, but make these visits brief and boring. Eventually, your child will make the connection that you are in close proximity to her, and she will be able to peacefully fall asleep on her own.

You will also want to make sure your child’s sleep environment is as comfortable as possible. Children associate certain sleepwear with feelings of comfort, safety, and security as they head to bed. Medical studies have shown that babies sleeping in wool sleep wear settle more quickly, cry less, sleep longer, feed better and gain weight faster. Woolino products are an excellent option as they are made with the “magic of merino wool,” and the benefits are countless.

While their favorite sleep bag may not take the place of snuggling up to mom or dad, you are offering them a routine and a piece of familiarity when you eventually have to say goodnight and leave the room.

Remember, although this is a difficult phase, Separation Anxiety is just that - a phase. It will pass. In the meantime, however, try to revel in the magic of knowing that to your child, you are their whole world.