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Separation anxiety in children

Separation anxiety is when a child becomes upset or distressed when separated from a parent. Most children experience separation anxiety at some stage.

Your child may be clingy and cry. It can be difficult for parents, but it's a sign of a strong bond between you and your child. It's a normal part of your child's development.

Don't let their separation anxiety stop them from having new experiences or spending time with friends.

Don’t let it stop you doing the things you need to do, like going to work or going shopping.

When separation anxiety starts

Separation anxiety usually first starts to happen between 7 and 12 months. It can continue until 3 years of age and beyond. For some children, it may last longer. But it usually decreases with age. All children are different. They develop at their own pace.

Separation anxiety can happen when:

  • a parent goes back to work after being on leave
  • a child begins going to a childminder, crèche or pre-school

How to manage separation anxiety

There are some things you can do to help your child to understand and cope with their feelings when you leave.

Start with short periods

Begin with short separations in your own home. Start with 1 minute and work up to an hour. Leave your child with a familiar person who they know well. For example, a grandparent or a babysitter.

Leaving your child with another caregiver teaches your child how to cope without you. This helps them to become more independent.

Saying goodbye

When it's time to say goodbye:

  • give them something to look forward to like: 'When I come back, we are going to visit nanny’s house'
  • leave them with something comforting - such as clothing that smells like you or a favourite toy
  • be positive and confident when saying goodbye - do not let your child see that you're sad or worried

Never sneak away without saying goodbye. Saying goodbye teaches your child that when you leave, you will return.

New childcare

If you are arranging new childcare, visit a few times with your child beforehand. This gives them the chance to get to know the childminder or crèche.

Build up the amount of time your child spends with the caregiver until they are comfortable.

Watch a video on settling your child into childcare

When to get help

Talk to your GP or public health nurse if your child:

  • remains upset or distressed for a long time after you leave
  • is very upset or distressed
  • has separation anxiety going on for a few weeks

Why separation anxiety happens

Separation anxiety happens because of your child's fear of separation from you. Your child does not understand that when you leave, you will come back.

From about 7 months, they start to understand that they can use their voice to get your attention. Some children are more likely to show their distress if they are temperamental.

Separation anxiety is normal. As your child gets older, they learn that you exist even when you are out of sight. As they come to understand that you will return, the anxiety they experience when you leave will reduce.

Separation anxiety does not happen because you have 'spoiled' your baby. Responding to their needs in a loving way shows them that you care and makes them feel safe.

Read about your child's social, emotional and behavioural development

Page last reviewed: 5 November 2021
Next review due: 5 November 2024

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This project has received funding from the Government of Ireland’s Sláintecare Integration Fund 2019 under Grant Agreement Number 8.