You used to leave your baby with loved ones or other trusted child care providers with a kiss on the cheek and a quick wave goodbye. Now, however, your goodbyes trigger tears and clingy behavior. What's going on?
Separation anxiety is a normal stage of development for infants and toddlers. Frustrating as it may be, it's actually an emotional milestone that generally begins at 8 to 9 months of age. Your child is starting to understand that there's only one of you — and you still exist even when you aren't in sight.
Separation anxiety usually fades by age 24 months. In the meantime, say goodbye gently and reassure your child that you'll return soon. Separation anxiety rarely requires medical treatment.
Fussing and crying are the classic signs of separation anxiety. Screaming and tantrums are possible, too. During the day, your child may refuse to leave your side. During the night, he or she may wake up and cry out for you.
Between ages 8 and 12 months, children often experience a period of separation anxiety. It usually peaks between ages 10 and 18 months. Most children outgrow separation anxiety by age 24 months.
Separation anxiety disorder
In some children, separation anxiety is a sign of a more serious condition known as separation anxiety disorder.
If your child's separation anxiety seems intense or prolonged — especially if it interferes with school or other daily activities or includes panic attacks or other problems, he or she may have separation anxiety disorder. Most frequently this relates to the child's anxiety about his or her parents, but it could relate to another close caregiver.
According to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), published by the American Psychiatric Association, separation anxiety disorder may occur as early as preschool age and is diagnosed when symptoms are excessive for the child's developmental age. Symptoms may include:
- Recurrent and excessive distress about being away from home or parents
- Constant, excessive worry about losing a parent to an illness or a disaster
- Constant worry that something bad will happen, such as being lost or kidnapped, causing separation from parents
- Refusing to be away from home because of fear of separation
- Not wanting to be alone and without a parent in the house
- Repeated nightmares about separation
- Frequent complaints of headaches, stomachaches or other symptoms when separation from a parent is anticipated
When to see a doctor
If you have concerns about your child's separation anxiety, talk to your health care provider.
Infants and toddlers have little sense of time and few memories of past experiences. When you leave, your child may not know when — or if — you'll return. He or she may become upset when you're not together — even if you just step into another room for a few minutes.
Sometimes, separation anxiety can be triggered by changes in the child's life, such as:
- A new child care situation
- A new sibling
- A new home
- Family stress or tension
To ease your child's separation anxiety:
- Practice goodbyes. Leave your child with a trusted caregiver for short periods of time. Eventually your child will learn that he or she can count on you to return.
- Time your departure carefully. Your child may be more likely to get upset when you leave if he or she is tired, hungry or restless. If you can, leave when your child is fed and rested.
- Give your child something to look forward to. Talk about something fun that will happen while you're gone.
- Don't prolong your goodbye. If you're leaving your child at home or in another familiar environment, give your child a gentle goodbye — then go. Encourage your child's caregiver to distract your child with a favorite toy or engage your child in a new activity right away. If you're leaving your child in a new environment, you might play with your child for a few minutes to ease the transition. When you leave, remind your child that you'll be back. Be specific about when you'll return, such as "after lunch" or "after your nap."
- Leave a reminder. Offer a special blanket, stuffed animal or other comforting object for your child to hold while you're gone. This can be part of the routine for separating.
- Keep the tears in perspective. Your child's tears are an attempt to keep you from leaving. When you're gone, the tears aren't likely to last long — especially once your child is engaged in a new activity.
Remember, separation anxiety is a rite of passage for infants and toddlers. Be patient as your child learns that it's OK to spend time away from you.