While my baby was 7 months old, I tried leaving him in his
crib to go to get some water from the dispenser. However, my child cried
hysterically until I had to come back. This was a new thing since before then I
could leave my child with minimal fuss, when does separation anxiety start?
Separation anxiety upsets both parents, family, and the child. The frustration boils from having fears in children and also since the child looks upset makes the parents get stressed. The worry as a parent is when the separation anxiety will stop.
Separation anxiety is a typical stage of emotional growth in
children which begins when the child commences to comprehend that people and
things exist even in instances where they are not available at the time being.
Object permanence is a concept used to describe the knowledge that things exist
even when not available at the time being.
The separation anxiety starts to show as the child grows
with signs of anxiety and being upset at being left alone by a parent.
This helps in children protection, a child’s protector
leaving them will always cause anxiety. Children in the African culture rarely
are left behind by their mothers but in the western culture, parents try to
give their children a sense of autonomy.
For example, children in the Western cultures always sleep
in their own crib from an early age while in Africa and other cultures,
children sleep in the parents’ bed for as long as it’s possible.
Separation anxiety always passes but it is recommended that
the parent makes the situation better for the child. Separation anxiety shows
the level of bond between the parent’s and the baby.
When does separation anxiety start?
In some children, separation anxiety starts as early as 6 or
7 months. At this stage, the child will start being upset and anxious about
being separated from the parents.
The peak for separation anxiety occurs between 10 to 18
months but starts reducing at 2 years.
For most children, anxiety is seen when the parent has to
leave and go to work or do the chores. It may also be experienced when the
child is left alone in the crib at night.
When does separation anxiety end? In most cases, the signs and symptoms of separation anxiety in toddlers significantly reduce at 24 months. Separation anxiety in almost all children ends at the age of 3 years.
What are the separation anxiety symptoms in Babies?
Separation anxiety is considered a milestone in the development of the child. It however comes with symptoms that cause unease both to the parents, relatives, and the baby.
Some of the most common symptoms of anxiety in children include:
- Clinging to parents or people the toddler knows
- Intense or severe crying especially when you
leave them alone in the room
- Waking up frequently at night
- Being afraid of strangers thus resulting to
crying when being held by unfamiliar people
- Throwing up emotional temper tantrums
To diagnose the anxiety disorder, when the child has the symptoms above and is crying, pick-up the child; If the child’s crying stops, then know that it is separation anxiety. If not check for other causes.
For children suffering from separation anxiety disorder (SepAD), a separation anxiety condition that occurs past the toddler years, the following additional symptoms are experienced:
- Being unable to interact normally with other children
- Refusal to go to school or do things that require separation
- Poor performance at school
- Physical illness including headaches and tummy problems. Some children might get diarrhea, nausea, and vomiting.
- Having problems in sleeping alone
SepAD is a disorder that affects approximately 3-4 percent of all children. These children may also develop or could be having other mental disorders. A third of children with separation anxiety disorder will be diagnosed with a mental disorder in their adulthood.
Separation anxiety in adults
This is almost similar to the separation anxiety in babies. It can occur when a person is separated from a parent, a partner, a child, or a place.
In some instances, the anxiety disorder is related to other underlying mental disorders. These disorders include psychotic disorders or autism spectrum disorder-related fear of change.
For most people, separation anxiety disorder is described as being overprotective. The act of being overprotective serves as a way of expressing the anxiety.
The risk factors for separation anxiety disorders in adults include:
- Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD)
- Other anxiety disorders like social phobias, panic disorders, and agoraphobia among others.
- Pre-existing medical disorders like autism and psychotic disorders
- Female gender
- Trauma in your childhood due to loss of family member and abuse
- Experiencing a traumatic event like divorce and child leaving the house for boarding school.
The separation anxiety disorder in adults can be treated using the treatment methods for anxiety disorders. These methods include:
- Psychotherapy techniques such as cognitive behavioral therapy
- Medications for anxiety disorder.
- Home remedy techniques
How to help a child with separation anxiety
There are several ways on how to ease separation anxiety in babies. The tips and tricks enable the child to calm down and be separated from the parent. The methods can also be used for children before preschool.
Ways on how to manage separation anxiety include:
- Prepare the child for separation.
The child might not say something, but they
understand a lot. It is always recommended that as a parent you should always
talk and engage the child.
Inform the baby on where you are going, how long you will be gone, and who will be with him/ her while you are away. This way the child is able to look ahead and know that separation is just for a moment.
If the baby will be left with a babysitter,
kindly talk about the babysitter with excitement. This way the child will be
reassured about the minder. He/she might cry at first, but the anxiety symptoms
will ease in severity and frequency with time.
- Always say goodbye as you leave:
As a parent I have sneaked-out on my baby
several times during periods of extreme symptoms of separation anxiety. This
was done to ensure that the child does not cry as I watch.
However, as I came to realize, this made
the next separation even more extreme. In addition, after sneaking out once or
twice from my baby, He realized that I may leave at any time thus being more
alert. He could cry even if I left the baby and moved a few steps away.
Therefore, it is recommended that you give
your child time to digest and sometimes cry when you are leaving by saying
After some time, the child will learn that
you always come back and get used to separation.
For separation anxiety in toddlers at night,
it is also good to say goodbye as you leave them in their crib.
This way the child after some time will get
used to the idea that they can be independent at night. Sneaking out on the
baby while he/she sleeps makes the child terrified or surprised when they wake
The goodbye should be done without fanfare.
That way the child is able to deal with the feelings as fast as possible
instead of increasing the anxiety with fanfare.
When a child is faced with the moments of
anxiety, he/she will scroll for any doubt and fear in either parent or with you
and exploit it.
With consistent decisions from you or your
partner, the child learns that separation will only last a moment. As much as
possible try not to give in to their demands.
The idea should be reinforced the following
day and with each passing time the child learns to respect the decisions you
The same applies for separation anxiety at preschool, consistent parents will drop the child at school or to the bus, and give a short goodbye.
No matter the tantrums or crying ensure
that that is the routine every day. With each passing day the child gets used
to the routine and reduce the anxiety caused reactions.
- Prepare a comfort object:
The child needs a reminder of the things he
is comfortable with. The best way to make sure that the child remembers the
things that make him/her comfortable or happy is to give him an object as a
The transition object might include a photograph, an old sweater, a sticker, or a favorite toy. The object gives comfort and relief from anxiety symptoms.
The object may also be a source of anxiety
if it reminds the child that you are not around. It therefore should be
monitored for a few times if it is working.
An object that offers security might also help such as a blanket, a stuffed animal, or sucking his finger might also help.
Also in case of a change in surroundings or caregiver, try to ensure the child has a familiar comfort object.
Some of the best anxiety toys can be found on Amazon here.
- Set up smooth and steady changeovers:
The smooth and steady transition is an important way to ensure the child is ready for separation. To prepare for the transition, request the minder to arrive earlier than required, for example 30 minutes earlier.
For the transition period (30 minutes), let
the babysitter and the child interact while you offer security and calm to the
The changeover can also happen even during
a two-day period, like a weekend, if the babysitter will be taking care of the
baby for some time.
As soon as the baby is happy to stay with
the minder, withdraw to the background. With time the child will get used to
the babysitter. From that moment the separation anxiety will reduce.
It is also better if you maintain a
consistent caregiver. This gives the baby some form of consistency that helps
to calm the baby when separation occurs.
- Leave the house simultaneously with the baby:
If the baby is the one going out of the
house, the goodbye is easier. To ensure that the baby calms down during the
separation period, ask the minder to take the baby out.
The baby and the minder can go for a stroll
simultaneously as you are leaving.
Even if the child leaves the house before
you, please explain to him/her that you are leaving too.
This way the child remains calm even if
they don’t find you in the house. Leaving without informing the baby can cause
extreme separation anxiety symptoms.
- Ensure the baby is active as you head out:
In order to make the separation less
traumatizing, ensure the babysitter and the baby are engaged in an activity
before heading for the door.
Separation anxiety as explained above peaks
between 10- 18 months, at this time the baby can get involved in an activity.
As you are leaving, ensure that you say goodbye.
The distraction from the activity will help
to ease the anxiety reaction and saying goodbye ensures that they don’t recur
once he/she notices you are not in the house.
- Help the child to name the feeling:
Playing “name the feeling” helps the baby
to communicate their worries. Naming their feelings might help to cool down the
To play the game, ask the child to put a
label in what he/she is feeling. The game enables the child to learn that
everyone suffers from similar feelings during separation.
The activity helps the child to learn and
try to cope with any feeling just as the parent is coping.
- Leave the child to acquire coping skills for
A child learns through several ways. Some
cultures let the child to touch a flame in order to learn that fire is
For anxiety, even though it is uneasy to
see your child crying from separation, it might be the right thing for him to
learn how to cope with the feeling.
Therefore, it may be good for the baby just
to let him be. This way with time the child learns how to cope with anxiety.
In some situations, a child can be too
clingy, always giving in to his demands may make the anxiety worse. Let the
child cry but also reassure him that he is secure, and everything is okay.
- Schedule separations after taking food or a
Separation anxieties in babies increase if he is hungry or sleepy. The mixture of feelings may be too hard on your baby.
For this reason, ensure the child is full
and is not sleepy before heading out.
- Ensure that you keep your promises:
A child will remember any promises given to
him. If these promises are not kept, the child start losing confidence in your
word and actions.
To ensure the baby is comfortable and less
anxious the next time you leave, kindly keep your promises. These promises may
even be about the time you are coming back or a gift you were to bring.
- Ensure that there is minimal scary TV or
shows on a tablet, phone or laptop that the baby can see:
If the child has seen frightening shows, he
is likely to be very scary during separations. The shows might still be
lingering in his brain as you separate bringing out the extremes of separation
The bottom line
Separation anxiety affects almost every child. However, the
degree of severity of the symptoms vary from child to child.
Separation anxiety in babies can be managed in babies. It is
however important to learn about when they start and the symptoms.
Using the methods described in this article it is easier for
the child to deal with separation anxiety at home or even during preschool