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Separation Anxiety

Parting is such sweet sorrow

By Dr Helen Andrews

hand in handYour once happy baby now won’t go to anyone else, your toddler cries and clings when you drop them at nursery, your ‘big boy’ starting school seems to regress to being a baby when you go to leave – all signs of separation anxiety. What is it, how common is it, and what can you do about it?

Very young babies live in the moment. They aren't able to think about what was, or imagine what might be. They don’t even realise that there are other people, that are separate from them – and that includes you. Their need for care and comfort can, initially, be provided by any sensitive person, although they recognise you as familiar. Over time, they become more easily comforted by someone that they know and that knows them but they still don’t have a sense of loss at you leaving.

Sometime around seven to nine months, this begins to change. Your baby can now hold the idea of you in mind and wants you to look after them.

They have a sense of your absence and can feel very anxious when you are gone. This is a very significant step in their development. It shows their developing attachment to you and is the gateway to learning about the bigger world.

Babies and young children rely on us to help them feel safe and navigate this world of new experiences. When we aren’t around, they become anxious and their cry shows their distress and is an attempt to draw us back to them. From an evolutionary perspective, separation anxiety and associated crying is a life saver.

Children vary in the degree to which they experience separation anxiety. It can seem to come and go and often represents stages of development. The vast majority of babies and young toddlers experience it and it is normal. After about twenty months, we can see that some children are generally more shy and anxious than others, and we see more individual variation. However, even the most confident of children can have a wobble when their world changes. This change could be a new baby, moving house, or starting at nursery or school.

So, what can we do? When your child is crying, they are genuine tears. Although they may be hoping that they will make you stay, this does not take away the fact that they are scared. As parents, our aim is to nurture children so that they feel safe, to give them confidence to know that when we go, we will return.

With a young baby, it is important to be around as much as possible. If you need to be away, try and ensure that your baby isn’t hungry or over-tired so they have more resources for managing the separation. Practise with quick separations, to start to develop confidence about your return.

As your child gets older there are a few general guidelines:

• Familiarise your child with their new setting and new carers in advance of leaving them
• Talk to them about what will happen
• Spend some time settling them before you leave
• Leave them with a favourite toy or comforter
• Never just sneak away – it may be easier for you but it is much harder for your child when they realise you have gone
• Stay positive and calm - our moods are contagious
• Acknowledge any upset and offer reassurances
• Say where you are going, when you will be back and stick to it!
• Say goodbye once and go

Separation anxiety is thus called because it is the parting that causes distress. The majority of children can be distracted relatively easily and are settled within ten minutes. It is ok to call the nursery and ask how they are doing. Be positive on your return and praise them for doing well.

A few children do continue to have difficulties. If you find you are avoiding returning to work, going out, or there is nursery/school refusal because of anxiety, then do seek help.

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More Information about Dr Helen Andrews

Dr Helen Andrews is a Clinical Psychologist with over 15 years experience working with children and young people. You can contact Helen on 01564 795 337 and you can find out more at

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