Separation Anxiety – What it is, Why it Happens – and How to Cope

 You may notice that your baby starts to become more clingy as they get older, crying if you leave the room for only a few seconds or needing to be held by you all of the time. Separation anxiety is a normal stage of psychological development for babies that usually starts at some point between 8 and 18 months old.  Separation anxiety is actually a good sign of an emotionally healthy child, however it can leave many parents wondering if they have done something wrong and somehow created an unconfident baby. It is very important to remember therefore that this is a healthy sign.

Photo by Josh Willink on

Far from meaning that you have created a needy child it is actually a sign that you have done a great job raising your baby.  To understand why separation anxiety is a good thing we first need to start with what your baby thinks and feels at birth. Newborn babies have no idea that they are a separate entity to their parent. This knowledge begins to happen at around six months of age, usually peaking between nine and twelve months. The development of separation anxiety is an indication that your baby has formed a secure attachment to you, that they realise you and they are separate beings but that you are vitally important in terms of helping them to feel safe and secure.

Last century, the Psychologists John Bowlby and Mary Ainsworth formulated the idea of attachment theory. Their important work led us to the understanding that the beginnings of true independence and confidence in children stem from a secure attachment to their parents in infancy, or as Bowlby called it a “secure base”. For babies it is important that they are allowed to be dependent on their parents for as long as is necessary in order to be independent as an older child and adult. One of the best measures we have of ‘secure attachment’ is to observe a baby who is comfortable in the presence of his or her parent and very upset when his or her parent leaves. In our current culture however this is not seen as normal, it is seen as undesirable and ‘clingy’ behaviour and many experts and professionals are eager to force independence as soon as possible In the mistaken belief that independence can be taught, it cannot. The commonly held assumption that in order to create a confident independent child we must push them out into the world so they can learn we are not always there is grossly incorrect. True independence is not learnt through rewards, punishments and forced separation, true independence stems from a loving, secure relationship with caregivers at a young age. This is what your baby learns during this period of separation anxiety and why it is so important to stay responsive during this time. It is absolutely not a time for sleep training which only teaches the baby that you don’t come back when they need you.

See the video below for more on separation anxiety – and how it can impact your baby’s behaviour (including sleep):

Top Tips to Cope with Separation Anxiety.

  1. Empathising with your baby’s feelings is hugely important.  Try to understand that this is a normal phase of development, albeit a scary one, for them to pass through and that they are not trying to manipulate you in any way. If you parent with empathy during separation anxiety not only will your child be more empathic and confident themselves when they are grown, ultimately parenting will be easier and more rewarding for you too.
  2. Ignore advice from those who tell you that they need to learn to be alone. Despite research into attachment theory being prevalent in the 1950s and 60s, the results of this research didn’t really filter down into mainstream parenting. For this reason many grandparents probably parented in an entirely different way that involved their children “needing to learn to be independent”.
  3. Consider the timing of the end of maternity leave if possible. Many mothers book their return to work at around eight to ten months, but sadly this is perhaps one of the worst times a mother can return to work, because of the separation anxiety. Is it possible to push the return to work back by a month or two? Alternatively consider settling your baby into childcare well before separation anxiety hits in order that they can form a close attachment with their new caregiver.
  4. Try to foster your baby’s secure attachments with other people. Secure attachment doesn’t just have to be with the parents, it can be with grandparents, aunts, uncles, babysitters, nannies, childminder or nursery key workers. You just need to build the secure attachment before separation anxiety exists
  5. Help your child to feel as close to you as possible by giving them an item of your clothing to hug. You could try a muslin spritzed with perfume, or worn close to your skin to absorb your scent, or an old T-Shirt that you have worn often. Some parents even record their voices, talking to their little one or singing a lullaby. Only around 60% of babies will take to a comfort object though.
  6. Try to keep the rest of your life as constant as possible around the age of separation anxiety. It may not be the greatest time to go on holiday for instance.
  7. Lastly, be kind on yourself whilst your baby is experiencing separation anxiety. This is the real key. You can’t do much to speed your baby through this stage, but what you can do is change how you respond. In order to respond with compassion for your baby you need to nurture yourself. Sleep when you can, enlist help from people your baby already has a secure attachment with, even if it is just for them to sit cuddling your baby for an hour whilst you soak in the bath. Keep telling yourself that it is a good sign and repeat the mantra “this too will pass” often.

    This is an excerpt from my Gentle Parenting Book – a guide to gentle parenting practices from pregnancy through to seven years of age. You can get a copyHEREin the UK and HERE in the rest of the world.


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Published by SarahOckwell-Smith

Sarah Ockwell-Smith, Parenting author and mother to four.

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