What Is Separation Anxiety?

Posted by in No-Cry Separation Anxiety

Separation anxiety is a normal and important developmental adaptation of a child’s emotional and mental growth. It does not have a particular “cause.”

Nothing you have done has “made” your child develop separation anxiety.

Nicholas, 8 mth

Nicholas, 8 mth

Even though separation anxiety has not been caused by any particular action or event, there are caregiver actions that can either heighten or reduce a child’s anxiety. There are many things that can help build a child’s trust and confidence in his relationship with you so that he can transfer these feelings to other trusted adults who will help him feel safe away from his home base.

How common is it?

It makes perfect sense that children experience separation anxiety when pulled apart from their main caregiver. Nearly all children experience some aspect of separation anxiety. For some children the stage begins earlier, even at a few months of age. For some, the effects begin later, and some children have anxiety that lasts for longer spells than others. Some children have very visible, obvious indicators of their feelings, but there are also children who have less apparent reactions. There is no exact pattern or set of symptoms, but almost all children have it to some degree.

Adilyn, 3 yr

Adilyn, 3 yr

Does my child have separation anxiety?

Separation anxiety has many different symptoms, but it is often easy for parents to spot in their own child. It helps if you know exactly what to look for. The following are behaviors are most typically used to define normal separation anxiety:

    • Clinginess
    • Crying when a parent is out of sight
    • Strong preference for only one parent over all other human beings
    • Fear of strangers, or of family and friends who are not frequently seen
    • Resistance to separation at bedtime or naptime
    • Waking at night crying for a parent
    • Regression to an earlier stage of development, such as thumbsucking or babytalk
    • Anxiety that is easily eliminated upon a parent’s appearance

This too shall pass

Separation anxiety doesn’t have a specific beginning nor does it have an exact end. It shows itself in peaks and valleys – good days and bad days, good weeks and bad, and even good years followed by bad weeks. It can be bewildering to parents when their child shifts from confidence to anxiety and back again many times during the first six to eight years of life, but this unpredictable behavior is very normal. Gaining the maturity and skills to handle separation with confidence is a process, not a single event.

This stage, like so many others in childhood, will pass. In time, your child will learn that she can separate from you, that you will return, and that everything will be okay between those two points in time. Much of this learning is based on trust and experience, which, just as for every human being young or old, takes time to build.

Brydie & Siblings

Brydie & Siblings

Need more tips? The No-Cry Separation Anxiety Solution for gentle ways to make good-bye easy from six months to six years.

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  1. Ok – this may sound nuts but I keep reading so much about how separation anxiety is healthy and shows that your baby has bonded with you and I’m getting nervous because my 37 week old son is not exhibiting any signs at all! He’s perfectly happy with me, his Dad, my mom, the babysitter or the women at the gym daycare. I’m glad that he’s such a happy baby boy, don’t get me wrong – I just worry that I’m missing something.

    • Not to worry! Some babies just seem to love everyone and will happily greet all kinds of new people. It’s just personality. That said, your baby may one day do a complete and total shift and develop separation anxiety. That is normal, too – so keep your eyes open and guide him lovingly if/when this happens.

  2. My 4nth old will not let me out her down to sleep everytime I out her down she wakes right up, or 20 minutes later. I haven’t slept in months. Could this be seperation anxiety? She only wants me when she wakes in the night if my hubby gets her she screams bloody murder and pulls his chest hairs out. I don’t no hovers get her to not wake when I put her down. I can’t co sleep because she will want the boob all night long and I just can’t get comfy that way no matter how many support pillows I use .

    • Hi Jamie — At 4 months old we don’t really call this “separation anxiety.” It is more about sleep routines and habits. These are very common sleep issues!!! There are entire chapters on your exact issues in The No-Cry Nap Solution. If you want to email me I can send you a few excerpts or check my website for these – nocrysolution.com

  3. My 2 yr 8 month old won’t sleep without me. I also have a 3 month old who needs me also. My 2 year old will wake up and come and jump in our bed. I don’t mind but it’s really cramped with the new baby also. She loves daddy but at night only mummy will do. Will she grow out of it ( I’ll probably be sad then

    • Hi Jenny – This is really common! Yes, she’ll grow out of it – but sometimes you are ready to re-claim your bed sooner than that! There is a chapter entitled “Night Visitor” in The No-Cry Sleep Solution for Toddlers & Preschoolers. You can find excerpts on my website at nocrysolution.com or email me and I’ll send some tips — elizabeth@pantley.com