Is your baby afraid of strangers? Do they cry if you walk away? It could be separation anxiety.
If your child is over 3 years old, read our fact sheet on Separation Anxiety in Children.
What is separation anxiety?
Separation anxiety is a normal stage in a child’s development that usually starts around the age of 8 months. However, it can sometimes occur earlier.
During this stage, babies become frightened and cry more when they realize that they’re away from the person who feeds, cares for, and comforts them every day. Babies may be more reactive when they are separated from their parent in a new environment, as they derive a sense of security from familiar people and places.
At this age, babies are starting to get better at recognizing familiar faces (parents, siblings, grandparents, caregivers). They are wary of people they don’t know and seek out the reassuring presence of their parents.
As their memory and reasoning skills develop, they are also able to anticipate events. As a result, babies expect things to be a certain way. This is why they express their discomfort when they’re separated from one of their parents.
During this stage of their development, babies who used to smile at everyone they see start to seem more serious and intimidated around people they don’t know. This is what specialists call stranger anxiety.
Separation anxiety: Is it the same for both parents?
Though separation anxiety can be triggered by the absence of either parent, it may be stronger when a child is separated from the parent they spend the most time with. A baby may also react when they are taken away from one parent and given to the other. While this can be difficult for parents, it’s a common and normal reaction that will go away over time.
In many families, one parent spends more time caring for the baby during the first year of their life. The primary caregiver and baby develop a strong bond and develop certain habits.
The baby is comforted by the routine and familiar gestures—in short, what they recognize. That’s why they want to stay with the parent who rocks them, carries them, and feeds them most often. They like to hear the sound of that parent’s voice, be around their scent, and do things in a way that’s familiar and habitual. However, this bond does not prevent your baby from creating of a secure bond with the other parent.
Why does your baby cry when you leave the room?
Your baby’s ability to picture where you are in the house is developing, and this understanding is reassuring. However, your baby still prefers to rely on your comforting presence to keep them feeling safe. For example, if you go into the kitchen to get a glass of water, your child may react by crying when you walk away. The sound of your voice in the hallway saying “I’ll be right back” and the familiar sound of running water helps them anticipate your return, which can help calm them down.
However, when you leave the house or leave your baby with someone else outside the house (e.g., daycare), your baby may not fully understand what is happening to you. They can’t see you, they can’t picture where you are, and they can’t anticipate when you’ll be back. This loss of reference points makes them anxious.
When does separation anxiety end?
Separation anxiety can last up to the age of 18 months. It then gradually decreases.
Sometimes, the first signs of separation anxiety appear around 8 months, then go away and come back in fits and starts. This can happen when an event disrupts your child’s routine, such as recent changes at daycare, a parent’s prolonged absence, a move, or the arrival of a younger sibling. Your child will want to be close to you so they feel secure, and separations will be more difficult.
What does separation anxiety look like?
During this time, your baby may react in the following ways:
- Crying when they can’t see you, when you leave them alone in a room or with someone they don’t know or don’t know very well
- No longer smiling at the first person who comes along and no longer wanting to be held by just anyone
- Fussing, crying, or becoming very observant when you take them to new places Out of concern, your baby may start watching your movements and anticipating your departure
- Starting to wake up or wanting to be with you at night
Not all children experience separation anxiety with the same intensity. Children who are used to seeing a lot of people often get through this period more easily. Personality also plays a role: some children are more fearful by nature, while others are more sociable.
How can you help your little one through the separation anxiety phase?
Little by little, your baby will get used to new situations and people. They will also learn to detach from you. Here’s what you can do to reduce their anxiety:
- Give them time to adjust to a new place or people they don’t know. Talk to them for a bit so your baby can get used to them.
- Get your baby used to seeing different people, but don’t let anyone pick them up against their will.
- If they cling to you around strangers, give them a hug. Don’t hesitate to reassure and hold your child when they’re anxious.
- Play peek-a-boo by hiding your face behind a blanket, or play hide-and-seek behind a door frame or chair. These games help your baby understand where you are when they can’t see you.
- If you hire a babysitter, try to choose someone they know who will be able to deal with their emotions when you leave, pick them up, comfort them, and then take them to do an activity that will keep them interested and calm them down.
- Avoid leaving when your child isn’t looking or when they’re asleep. They may experience this as abandonment.
- Before you leave, give your little one a stuffed animal or blanket that they love, or a piece of clothing that smells like you. This will be a source of comfort for them.
- When you leave, say goodbye and explain why you’re leaving and what will happen while you’re gone. Tell them that you’ll be back soon, and include a concrete time frame. For example, you could say: “I’ll see you after your nap.” You can also explain to your child that they’ll be safe with the person looking after them and that they’ll take good care of them.
- If they cry and cling to you, take a moment to comfort them and give them a hug. Your embrace will soothe them. Keep talking to them in a gentle voice. Once they’ve calmed down, offer them toys or activities that will spark their interest. The person who is watching them will then be able to join in on the game, making it easier for you to leave.
- If the babysitter is coming to your home, ask them to arrive 15 to 30 minutes before you plan to leave. That way, they can start playing with your child while you’re still at home.
- Show your baby that you feel confident about leaving them with their caregiver. Otherwise, they’ll pick up on your anxiety and feel even more stressed.
- Help your toddler play independently. For example, set your child down near you with some toys when you’re cooking or reading. They’ll gradually build up their confidence, knowing that you’re still close by.
What about separated parents?
Here’s what you can do to help your little one if you have a shared custody agreement and your child is experiencing separation anxiety:
If possible, alternate custody days to keep your child from being separated from either parent for too long.
Maintain the same routine (mealtime, bath time, bedtime) at both parents’ homes to make your child feel secure. If your child goes to daycare, try to keep drop-off and pickup times as consistent as possible.
Make sure your child has their favourite blanket, stuffed animal, or toy with them at both parents’ homes.
Give your child a piece of clothing that smells like you when they go to the other parent’s house.
Put a photo of their other parent in their room.
Separation anxiety and daycare
If your child starts daycare while they’re going through their separation anxiety phase, you’ll need to gradually get them used to your absence. Here are a few tips to help them deal with the transition:
- Visit the daycare with your child before their first day. Stay together as long as it takes to get familiar with the space and the people there. That way, when you drop them off for the first time, it won’t be a totally new place for them.
- Walk your child to their classroom on the first day if the daycare allows it. Take the opportunity to play with your child and talk with the educator for a little while. They’ll feel better about staying in an environment if their parent spent a bit of time there with them first..
- Start by leaving your child at daycare for short periods: an hour or two the first few days, then half a day. Your child will gradually get used to their new environment, and their anxiety will diminish and be replaced by the excitement of discovery.
- Don’t drag out goodbyes once your toddler is settled into their daycare and has a solid bond with the educator caring for them. Take a moment to hug your child and reassure them that they’re in good hands. Then, let them get settled in with a toy or with the educator and leave. If you stay too long, it will be harder for them to understand why you left so quickly on subsequent days. If you want to spend more time with them at the daycare, do so when you pick them up.
- Don’t scold them if they cry or ignore you when you pick them up at the end of the day. They need to adjust to your presence, and they might have conflicting feelings. They probably had a nice day, but they may have been bored, too. Wait for them to come to you on their own.
Things to keep in mind
Separation anxiety is a normal part of a child’s development that starts around 8 months of age and ends around 18 months of age.
During this time, your baby is comforted by your presence. For this reason, they may react negatively when they are separated from you.
You can help your baby feel less anxious by showing them lots of affection and gradually exposing them to new faces and situations.
Scientific review: Chloé Gaumont, M.Sc., psychoeducator
Research and copywriting: The Naître et grandir team
Updated: September 2022
Photos: GettyImages/PeopleImages and ljubaphoto
Sources and references
Note: The links to other websites are not updated regularly, and some URLs may have changed since publication. If a link is no longer valid, please use search engines to find the relevant information.
Canadian Medical Association. Complete Book of Mother & Baby Care: A Practical Guide from Conception to Age Three. Montreal, DK Canada, 2011, 264 pp.
Institut national de santé publique du Québec. From Tiny Tot to Toddler: A practical guide for parents from pregnancy to age two. www.inspq.qc.ca
Shaffer, David R., et al. Developmental Psychology: Infancy and Childhood. 5th ed., Toronto, Nelson Publishing, 2020, 613 pp.
Sunderland, Margot. The Science of Parenting: How Today’s Brain Research Can Help You Raise Happy, Emotionally Balanced Children. DK, 2016, 304 pp.
Zeanah, Charles H. Handbook of Infant Mental Health. 4th ed., New York, Guilford Press, 2018, 678 pp.