How To Cope with Separation Anxiety in Babies

Updated Jan 4th 2023 | timer 7  min read

How to Deal with Separation Anxiety in Babies
Elissa Gross

Medically Reviewed By medical-check-mark Elissa Gross Board Certified Pediatrician & Lactation Consultant

Mandy Treeby

Written By Mandy Treeby Chief Baby Sleep Consultant

How To Cope with Separation Anxiety in Babies

You may have heard that babies can get separation anxiety, and you may have thought, “Oh no, I hope my baby doesn’t get separation anxiety.” But separation anxiety is a completely natural part of your baby’s development, a normal, harmless, and positive sign your baby is developing well.

To help you understand separation anxiety in babies, we’ve gathered expert insights and advice to answer all your questions about separation anxiety in babies, including why do babies get separation anxiety, how can I help my baby through separation anxiety, and how long does separation anxiety last in babies?


IN THIS ARTICLE:


If your baby is experiencing separation anxiety, or you have any other question about how to help your baby sleep better, check out the Smart Sleep Coach by Pampers™. From handling separation anxiety to nap transitions to moving your baby into their own room, this easy-to-use app has all the information you need to help your baby learn to help you better understand and support your baby through this developmental leap and sleep set back.

What is Separation Anxiety in Babies?

First and foremost, separation anxiety in babies is completely normal and positive part of your baby’s development.

So, what is separation anxiety in babies?

Superficially, separation anxiety in babies is hesitancy or fear from or of being left alone. In reality, separation anxiety is actually your baby learning about object permanence.

What is Object Permanence?

Object permanence is the mental and emotional understanding that people and objects exist even when they’re out of sight.

In other words, when your baby is very little, you are out of sight, out of mind. When you leave the room, your baby starts thinking about other things.

As your baby grows, usually between 6 and 8 months, they begin to understand that when you leave, you’re not gone – you’re somewhere else. This makes your baby wonder all sorts of things: where did you go, are you coming back – these questions and anxiety can lead to some anxiety.

When Do Babies Get Separation Anxiety?

Babies typically begin to grasp object permanence around 6 months, which is when separation anxiety can arise, though sometimes it begins as early as 4 months or a bit later, around 8 months.

How to Anticipate Separation Anxiety in Babies:

You can almost “predict” when your baby will experience separation anxiety when you notice they start to search for “hidden” toys. For example, if your baby’s favorite teddy is hidden under a blanket, they’ll look for it there because they understand it’s still there, even if they can’t see it. When you see your baby looking for something out of sight, that’s a clue they’re learning object permanence and may soon experience separation anxiety.

How Long Does Separation Anxiety Last in Babies?

After maybe appearing around 6 months, separation anxiety in babies can occur periodically until they’re about 3-years-old. However, there are specific times when separation anxiety may be more pronounced.

8-Months: Initial bouts of separation anxiety can become more pronounced around 8 months, leading to what is commonly known as the 8-month sleep regression (or 9-months for some). Though frustrating, these too shall pass and remaining consistent with your sleep rules is the key to maintaining healthy sleep habits – if you’re struggling with sleep and separation anxiety, check out the Smart Sleep Coach by Pampers™ for personalized support and guidance.

18-Months - 24-Months: There’s often a second round of separation anxiety around 18-months, as your baby’s concept of object permanence expands. Whereas before your baby only realized you were somewhere else, now, as their understanding grows, they know you’re somewhere else doing something else.

This makes your baby wonder, “What are mom/dad doing?” It’s kind of like baby FOMO – fear of missing out.

Signs of Separation Anxiety in Babies:

Here are common signs of separation anxiety in babies:

  • Crying or calling out when you leave the room.
  • Becoming clingy, fussy, or crying in new situations, especially when meeting new people.
  • Demanding a parent stay near while falling asleep.
  • Waking in the night: This is very common in babies and can lead to a few sleep regressions, even with sleep training. Luckily, there are ways to minimize the impact of these sleep set backs, including sticking to the bedtime routine you create at the start of sleep training, along with your sleep rules.

We understand you may want to do anything and everything to help your baby through separation anxiety, but it’s best if you keep up with your sleep training approach rather than letting it slip “just this once.”

Even if your baby demands you stay with them until they fall asleep, it’s best to continue with your typical bedtime routine vs wavering and giving into their wants. Babies learn best when parents are consistent.

How Do I Minimize My Baby’s Separation Anxiety?

Peek-a-Boo: Peek-a-Boo is classic fun, but did you know it can also alleviate separation anxiety in babies. Basically, when you “disappear” behind your hands and “reappear,” you’re teaching your child that “out of sight” does not mean “gone forever.” Your “reappearance” is fun and reassuring!

Play “I’ll Be Right Back”: This is kind of like peek-a-boo, but on a bigger scale. To play this “game,” place your baby in a safe place, tell them “I’ll be right back,” and move out of sight or out of the room for 15-30 seconds. Then return to the room and announce, “I’m back!” As with peek-a-boo, this exercise reaffirms that you’ll always return to them.

You can extend your baby’s “alone endurance” by extending the amount of time you’re out of the room. For example, if you’re out of sight for 15 seconds the first round, go for 30 seconds the next, and then 45-seconds – just keep a safe eye on them, even if they may not be able to see you.

“I’ll Check On You:” This is less a game and more a practice: Sometimes separation anxiety in babies can lead to sleep regressions: brief spells when your baby struggles to fall asleep at their bedtime or wakes in the night.

In these cases, reassure your anxious baby that you will check on them in a set amount of time – 15 minutes, for example – and then check on them when you said you would. 9 times out of 10, your baby will have self-soothed themselves to sleep.

But, in that 1-out-of-10 case your baby doesn’t fall back to sleep, checking on them reinforces the truth that you will always return for them and, thus, helping reduce one of the biggest parts of separation anxiety: the fear of separation.

How Do I Help My Baby Sleep Through Separation Anxiety?

In addition to peek-a-boo and other games teaching object permanence, you can help your baby’s separation anxiety with these steps:

Reinforce Sleep Training: Revisiting your sleep training method to keep healthy sleep habits in place while your baby goes through this developmental leap.

Does Separation Anxiety Hurt My Baby?

No, separation anxiety is a natural and harmless part of your baby’s mental and emotional development. It helps them understand object permanence, it helps develop a sense of independence and, just as importantly, by working to minimize separation anxiety, you reinforce the truth that you will always return to your little one.

Does Crying Hurt My Baby?

Crying does not hurt babies at all. Crying is simply one of the only ways your baby knows how to communication. Crying therefore can mean many things: your baby is hungry, your baby is tired, bored, or has separation anxiety, among other reasons. If your baby cries from separation anxiety and you aren’t able return to them – for example, you leave them with a babysitter to attend a work meeting – it’s alright if they cry a bit. Most often your baby will calm themselves within a few minutes.

FAQs:

How Long is Separation Anxiety in Babies?

Bouts of separation anxiety in babies vary, but are typically brief, about 2-6 weeks, but can be minimized by playing games like peek-a-boo and “I’ll be right back.” Games like this reinforce the fact that you will always return and can ease your baby’s concerns.

However, separation anxiety can and typically does reoccur cyclically, as your baby’s concept of object permanence expands, so even after their first round of separation anxiety around 6 months, your baby may experience another round of separation anxiety around 18 months.

How Old are Babies When Separation Anxiety Begins?

While every baby is unique, separation anxiety in babies typically begins around 6 months and can recur periodically until your baby is 3-years old. Separation anxiety in babies can be minimized, however, by playing games that reinforce the idea that you’ll always return to them. Peek-a-Boo is a great example of such a game. 

Do Babies Get Sad When You Leave?

Though it’s hard to label the emotion “sadness,” babies can become upset when a loved one such as a parent leaves the room or house. This is totally normal, and actually a positive sign your baby is developing well: they understand object permanence – that people exist even when out of sight.

Should Babies with Separation Anxiety Cry It Out?

Aside from verbal reassurances and games like Peek-a-Boo, the only other way to help your baby cope with separation anxiety is to separate. While this may lead to some tears, crying does not hurt your baby, and in time they will learn that brief separations are entirely harmless.

Sources:

“Separation anxiety disorder in children and adolescents: epidemiology, diagnosis and management,” CNS Drugs.
“Developmental Stages of Social Emotional Development in Children,” StatPearls Medical Database.
“Factors affecting infants' manual search for occluded objects and the genesis of object permanence,” Infant Behavior and Development.

Disclaimer

How We Wrote This Article

The information in this article is based on the expert advice found in trusted medical and government sources, such as the American Academy of Pediatrics and the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists. You can find a full list of sources used for this article below. The content on this page should not replace professional medical advice. Always consult medical professionals for full diagnosis and treatment.

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