Regardless of temperament, at some point during a child’s first year, there’s a chance they’ll develop separation anxiety (read: they scream and reach in their parent’s direction when someone else tries to sneak in a snuggle). While this can be either flattering or insulting, depending on which side of things you’re on, one thing is for sure: Separation anxiety can be pretty inconvenient. “When my baby first started getting upset when his grandparents wanted to hold him, it was cute,” notes Meghan Walsh, a mom of two from Fairport, New York. “But after it went on for a bit, it became a bit of a hassle. They were coming over to give me a break.”
Even though listening to your child wail every time you leave the room can be distressing — or a wee bit offensive if you’re starting a shift — it’s important to remember it’s incredibly common. “Separation anxiety is a normal developmental milestone that all pediatricians expect to hear about at well child checkups,” notes Dr. Sara Siddiqui, a pediatrician and clinical assistant professor in the Department of Pediatrics at NYU Langone’s Hassenfeld Children’s Hospital in New York.
Wondering when little one’s extreme person preference is going to ease up, and what you can do to comfort them in the meantime? Experts offer advice for navigating the often-emotional road that’s separation anxiety in babies.
Why do babies get separation anxiety?
According to Dr. Amna Husain, a pediatrician at Pure Direct Pediatrics in Marlboro, New Jersey, separation anxiety occurs in babies once they develop the ability to realize that you still exist, even in your absence. “Once a baby understands the concept of object permanence, they’re able to realize that you disappeared, which leaves the baby feeling unsettled,” explains Husain.
The term object permanence was first coined in 1963 by child psychologist Jean Piaget. Using a blanket to hide toys that were previously visible to babies, Piaget determined that at 8 months, babies developed the ability to remember that objects still exist, even when they’re not in front of them. Since then, however, studies have found that object permanence can occur as early as 5 months for some babies.
Another reason babies develop separation anxiety is anxiety about strangers — i.e., only wanting to be around people they know well. “Stranger anxiety occurs when the baby’s brain and neurologic system begins to become aware of those they know and people that are new,” says Siddiqui. “They’re able to identify people they can trust and who are in their day-to-day life and those who are new and not around daily. Obviously, they feel more comfortable with the former.”
What are the signs of separation anxiety in babies?
The main sign of separation anxiety in babies is — you guessed it — crying. However, there are a few additional, less obvious signs, according to Siddiqui, including “looking at the parent and getting upset or irritable when they’re leaving.”
How do you fix separation anxiety in babies?
You may not be able to completely stop a baby from getting upset when you’re not close by altogether, but there are a few things you can do to make it better.
- Keep goodbyes brief. “When parents keep transitions short and consistent, it can help avoid the buildup of anxiety in the baby,” explains Husain.
- Have set routines. For infants who get separation anxiety — especially at bedtime — specific routines and set bedtimes can help,” says Siddiqui.
At what age do babies have separation anxiety?
According to Husain, the age for when separation anxiety sets in is completely dependent on each kid. “Separation anxiety varies widely between children during infancy, toddlerhood and preschool,” says Husain. “The infant can be young as 4 to 5 months old and can be as old as 3 to 4 years. It all depends on the child.”
And just like the age range for separation anxiety varies, so does the duration — and again, a lot of it is dependent on the child’s personality. “While some babies become extremely upset for just a short time when they separate from their parents, others may persist into toddler and school drop-offs,” says Siddiqui.
How to help with separation anxiety at night
For some babies, separation anxiety kicks in at night. According to Stanford Children’s Health, night-time separation anxiety most often starts around 6 months, with the reason being that, at this age, babies very much want to be around their parents or other people they know well, and they don’t yet understand that separations are short term.
As with any type of separation anxiety, the exact age that bedtime anxiety starts varies, as does the length of time it lasts, according to Husain. Again, though, sticking with something familiar each night will help assuage the nervousness your child feels.
“Establishing a set routine at night is extremely important, as babies tend to like structure and the same routine daily in order for an easier bedtime,” says Husain. “Performing patterned behavior — such as bath, brush, book and bed — helps to establish a recognizable routine that will help make baby more comfortable separated from their parents.”
Another thing to keep in mind is that, even if a child hasn’t shown signs of separation anxiety for a time, it can still crop back up. “Separation anxiety can come and go depending on different circumstances such as vacation, moving or a new sibling,” notes Husain. “Anything that may disrupt the routine may cause the sleep pattern to be disturbed and need to be reset.”
Ultimately, while seeing a baby wail at bedtime or cry in another person’s arms can be distressing, take comfort in the fact that they’ll be OK. “Separation anxiety usually eases quickly for babies — typically within minutes,” says Siddiqui. “Once the parent has left and they’re distracted, they’re usually fine.”