Separation Anxiety

Ever had a ‘Velcro baby’ where she’d hold tight and not let you go? You'd step away and she’d cry and reach out for you in a desperate attempt to go with you. Even going to the bathroom or having a shower proved difficult without your baby dissolving into a flood of distressed tears. You probably found that these acts of insecurity were heightened when she was unwell, teething, tired or hungry. 

But don’t panic—it’s a normal stage of developmental that occurs around seven to nine months of age. It's a time when most babies start to crawl.

Handling a new stage of development

Your baby is developing ‘object permanence’ where just because something is out of sight and out of hearing doesn’t mean it no longer exists. Coupled with the new skill of crawling she takes herself away from her place of security, her primary carer (usually mum). The passion to explore, plus her leap in brain development, makes her feel unsure whether she can get back to mum or that mum will come back to her. How you handle this period of separation anxiety will have a strong influence on how well your baby learns to separate.


Help baby adjust

To help your baby adjust, don’t always rescue her and pick her up and take her with you. Instead, help her feel comfortable with separating. Come back to her and play for a few more minutes before going again. As you leave the room, let her see that you feel confident saying goodbye. Talk to her in an upbeat tone as you leave, assuring her that she’s ok and that you’ll be coming back to her. This is the same when leaving her at day care or grandmas. Give her time to feel comfortable in the company of a new carer before you leave. It will help her to separate with a minimum of distress. Avoid sneaking away, always say goodbye otherwise an unexpected disappearance can leave your baby wondering when and if you will return, which builds mistrust and feelings of insecurity.

Baby's temperament

Temperament has a major impact on how she copes with this stage of her development. You may have already noticed one of the three temperaments (easy, difficult, and slow-to-warm) in babies that you know, and recognised the different ways they handle change.

Home environment

The harmony of the home environment and whether dad works away for extended periods, also impacts on her ability to separate

Separation anxiety returns

‘Object permanence’ isn’t completely established until two years old, which means your toddler may go through this stage of separation anxiety again at around 15 to 18 months old. At this age your toddler’s inquisitive nature and spirit reaches a new level that often causes the clingy behaviour and distress of separating from significant carers to reoccur. This is because her brain development has taken another leap and her understanding of the world has changed.

At this age your toddler has an amazing grasp of language and can understand what you say, even if she can’t say it back yet. For this reason, talk to her, tell her what is happening, where you are going, and when you will be back. Wave goodbye and eventually she’ll associate going away with coming back. Keep her life stable and help her through this period of insecurity and uncertainly. Have a regular routine, feed her healthy food and encourage good day and night sleep patterns. Stay calm yourself knowing this time will pass. 

He can also experience separation anxiety at bedtime, as this is a period of long separation. Avoid cry-it-out strategies to encourage sleep during these times as this will only cause more distress.

The ‘Putting them to Sleep’ eBook has alternative bedtime strategies for you to try.

Again, temperament and the family environment are factors that interfere with her ability to manage separating, leaving her to cling for longer. While separation anxiety can prove difficult for you and your child, try to accept that it’s a normal stage of brain maturity and infant development, and remain patient, encouraging and reassuring. Be sensitive to individual temperament and needs.

Push away or hold on tight

Try not to push her away too soon or hold on too tight for too long, as this can hinder the developmental process of independence and self-assurance. Avoid comparing your baby with others of the same age as every child and every environment is different and as always seek professional help if you feel that separation is an ongoing problem.

References: Peterson, 2004 referred to in (Burton, 2011, Psychology) http://www.cyh.com/HealthTopics/HealthTopicDetails.aspx?p=114&np=141&id=1848

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Jan Murray has been committed to studying and working as a Registered Nurse, Midwife and Child Health Nurse for over 25 years. Jan has a bachelor of Behavioural Science, is a mother and nanna, who co-founded and directs Settle Petal. Jan provides information and support for parents to develop their knowledge base and confidence.

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