Parenting can be tough. One of the most common challenges and emotionally charged hurdles that parents face is helping their child deal with separation anxiety. This is a normal part of growing up that many kids go through between the ages of 6 months and 3 years. Separation anxiety is a common behavior for babies, toddlers, and preschoolers when they feel distressed, anxious, or nervous, because you, their person, their primary caregiver, is out of sight.
Separation anxiety can affect children differently, and it's a normal part of their development. However, it can be a difficult experience for both the child and parent. Parents may experience a range of emotions including guilt, worry, frustration, and helplessness. It's important for parents to understand the causes, signs, and ways to cope with separation anxiety in order to support their child in a healthy way.
Separation Anxiety by Age
Infants: Separation anxiety is a normal developmental phase that typically begins around 6-9 months of age when the child begins to understand object permanence. Games like peek-a-boo and placing a cheerio under a cup and your child looking under the cup are both examples of object permanence. Once your infant realizes you’re gone, they may feel nervous or anxious without you.
Toddlers: Some toddlers are unphased as infants by object permanence and others get a fresh dose around 12 months as stranger anxiety begins to kick in and they get weary and clingy around people. Another phase of separation anxiety often happens around 18-24 months, as it tends to come in waves as development progresses.
Preschoolers: At the preschool age, children can often test limits and make requests persistently. To handle their behavior effectively, it's crucial to consistent and firm. Don't give in to their pleas or antics. It's best to say goodbye and leave without delay. Keep in mind that separation can be beneficial for both the child and the adult. Children may behave differently depending on the adult they are with and the environment they are in.
HOW CAN I HELP MY CHILD DEAL WITH SEPARATION ANXIETY?
Practice Leaving: Practice leaving the baby with a trusted caregiver for short periods while you're still in the house. This can help the baby get used to the idea of you leaving and coming back. You can start small with peek-a-boo with your baby or hide-and-seek for your older toddlers. I recommend continuing to give clues from your hiding space during hide-and-seek so they feel comfort in knowing you are still nearby.
Gradual Separation: Begin with short separations and slowly increase the time (and distance) spent apart. This helps your baby build confidence that you will return. Have someone they know come over. Start small with bathroom breaks, then walk the dog, and build up to trips to the grocery store.
Create a Quick Goodbye Routine: Predictability can help ease anxiety, helps kids know what to expect, and makes it easier to cope with change. Stick to a regular routine for activities like feeding, napping, playtime, and goodbyes. This helps the baby recognize this pattern and feel secure. When it comes to saying goodbye, part ways with a hug, kiss, and “I love you. I will be back soon (after snack, etc).”
Be Consistent: Inconsistency breeds confusion. Consistency helps kids prepare and know what to expect. Try to do the same ritual each time you separate.
Quick Goodbyes and Warm Hellos: Keep goodbyes short and sweet. Prolonged goodbyes can actually intensify the anxiety. Say a quick goodbye and do not linger. When you return, greet your baby warmly.
Avoid Rushing Out the Door: While goodbyes are brief, you also want to build in time to have a calm, peaceful, easy (quick) exit. Feeling rushed out the door is stressful and builds anxiety for everyone.
Transition Objects: Introduce a comfort item, like a soft toy or a blanket, that the baby associates with you. This can provide comfort when you're not around.
Put on a happy face and make being apart a positive time. Be confident, smile, and stay calm and composed during departures. Staying calm reassures your little one that all is safe and it IS okay. If you are tense and sad, they will pick up on that fear. Babies can pick up on your emotions. If you're anxious or upset about leaving, your baby might become more anxious too. When leaving your child, even for brief moments, give your child full attention and provide affection.
Use Positive, Clear Language: When talking about leaving, use positive language that reinforces the idea that you will come back and repeat it upon returning to reinforce it. Tell your child in a way that makes sense to them. For example say, "I am going to the grocery store. I’ll be back after nap time. I love you” And upon returning, “I am back from the grocery store!” If you travel, talk about your return from travel in terms of "sleeps." Instead of saying, "I’ll be home in 3 days," say, "I’ll be home after 3 bedtime sleeps."
Practice Alone Time: Encourage short periods of independent play when you're nearby but not directly engaging with your child. This can help them learn that being alone is okay. Do the dishes in the next room while they are playing and then afterward point out how they played so nicely without Mom in the room. Praise that success.
Acknowledge Feelings: Validate your child’s feelings of anxiety. Talk to your child about what they can expect while you’re gone so it doesn’t feel as unknown. Comfort and reassure them that they are safe and you'll return. You could say, “I know this is hard, and you want me to stay. I’ll be back soon. I love you.”
Stay Visible: If possible, let your baby see you even when you're not holding them. This helps them understand that you haven't disappeared.
Don’t Sneak Away: It might be tempting to leave without saying goodbye, but this can actually erode trust and increase fear around separation. Your baby might become more anxious about you leaving without warning.
REMIND YOURSELF: Your child will keep crying until you leave. Remind yourself that your child will learn and grow and separation is good for them! It’s okay for YOU to cry when you get to your car, but stay strong and confident to show your child they are safe and all is okay.
SEPARATION ANXIETY AT BEDTIME:
How Do I Help My Child with Separation Anxiety Around Bedtime?
Here are some tips to help at bedtime and naptime if your child is having separation anxiety:
Keep (or start) your bedtime routine: Just like the goodbye routine, a consistent bedtime or nap routine provides stability, predictability and comfort. You can also use this time to connect. Making changes or adding new habits can backfire causing confusion, new struggles and a possible sleep regression. For nap, do a mini version of the bedtime routine which could involve activities like reading a story and saying a goodnight phrase before naptime. If you don’t already have one or need suggestions check out my sample suggested bedtime routine.
Tag Team Bedtime: Is your child saying “I only want Mommy to do bedtime!”? If there are two caregivers, alternate bedtime every other day. This helps the child’s expectations and boundaries. “I know you want Mommy to do bedtime. Tonight is Daddy’s night, Mommy will do bedtime tomorrow night.” (Parent hack: For an added bonus for parents’ relief, whoever does bedtime can also do wakeup that morning. That way the one person can wake up a little later and the question of “whose night is it” is already answered.)
Daytime Sleep: Check that your child’s daytime sleep and wake windows are on par for getting the right amount of day sleep for their age. An overtired child will have fragmented sleep and struggle to fall asleep so making sure your child is on an age-appropriate daytime sleep schedule is critical. Unsure and wondering if your child is on the right schedule and getting the right amount of sleep they need? Check out the Sleep Tight Tonight Sleep Chart Cheat Sheet
Make Cribtime Enjoyable: Spending time during the day in your baby's nursery can help them feel comfortable in their sleep space. Play, read, and do tummy time in the crib. Place baby in the crib to watch and explore while you play music, talk with them, or put away laundry. This will help them adjust to the room and sleep better at night.
Give Choices: Offering your child choices gives them a sense of control. Ask them if they prefer the pink pajamas or the blue pajamas; ask them to choose the two books you'll read during the bedtime routine.
Provide Comfort Items: Give a special bear or blanket and share a special story that this item can do in order to comfort them. Give your child your shirt to sleep with. Your scent is comforting. Put a family photo on their nightstand. Having familiar items nearby can provide a sense of security, and safety and make it easy for your little one to relax. * NOTE * This is for kids one year or older as kids under one should have nothing in their crib with them. If you’re unsure about safe sleep practices, this video will help. if they are 1+ and it is safe)
Your Attitude Matters
Be confident. “This is really hard. I understand you want me to lay with you to sleep tonight and you are having a hard time with this change. I know how disappointing it feels. I am going to sleep in my room and will be here when you wake up.”
Validate their feelings. “ I know it’s really tough. I remember not wanting to leave my parents either. I know where you are and I am here to keep you safe.”
Praise. Share confidence following the separation. “Wow you were really scared to go to sleep at grandmas yesterday. You took your blanket, snuggled it and thought of us and look! You had such a great time at grandmas. I missed you and thought about you. I knew you could do it! I am proud of you. You should be proud of yourself too."
Keep your boundary: “I know you’re having a hard time tonight and want mamma/daddy to stay. Mama/daddy needs to go to bed too. I can’t wait to give you a hug in the morning!” Have a plan.
8. Have a plan. If naps and bedtime are always a struggle or you need help with your kiddo's sleep, Don’t wait until the separation anxiety phase passes. If you need a step-by-step plan for working on sleep with your little one, my one-on-one support can help make sleep easy. Schedule your FREE 15-minute Sleep Assessment Call today.
Is your child transitioning to daycare and you’re worried about getting them to sleep at daycare? Check out my Top Tips to Prepare Your Child for Sleeping at Daycare on the ProEarlyCo blog!
Remember that separation anxiety is a temporary phase and is a sign of a healthy attachment between you and your baby. By employing these strategies, you can help your baby build confidence, security, and a positive attitude towards separations. If you’re concerned that your child isn’t adapting to being without you, or that it is becoming extremely intense and interferes with daily life, chat with your pediatrician. Your pediatrician has certainly helped support families in the same situation and can help determine a plan for you!
Don’t wait until the separation anxiety phase passes. If you need a step-by-step plan for working on sleep with your little one, my one-on-one support can help make sleep easy. Schedule your FREE 15-minute Sleep Assessment Call today.
Caryn Shender | Certified Pediatric Sleep Specialist and Coach | Founder of Sleep Tight Tonight
I am a proud mom, certified pediatric sleep specialist and coach, safe sleep ambassador, and author of My Scar is Beautiful. I am passionate about and committed to helping families turn sleepless nights into easy, peaceful nights and sweet dreams. Being a parent is hard. Being an exhausted parent is next to impossible. Together, we’ll make sleep easy.