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Separation anxiety

From around 6 months, babies become anxious and get clingy and cry when their parent or carer leaves them. This is a normal part of development, which young children usually grow out of by around 3 years.

What’s normal?

At around six months, babies will start to become anxious when their parent or primary caregiver leaves them. They’ll also get quite clingy and cry. This is a normal part of development, which children usually grow out of when they reach around three.

When a child starts to experience separation anxiety it’s a sign that they have begun to realises how much they rely on their carer. They will also have developed more awareness about what is going on around them. All this means they feel less safe when they don’t have their carer close by. They may also feel upset in new situations or with new people, even if their carer is there. For a baby, it’s particularly frightening to lose sight of their caregiver. Babies can panic that people or things may have gone for good, if they aren’t able to see them.

When a toddler is separated from a parent or carer, it can feel to them as though they have been ‘left’. They might think, “If you really loved me you would never leave me!” But the fact is that most toddlers will experience being separated from their parent or carer at certain times, and although they can find these times upsetting, the toddlers will learn to cope with them. If parents and carers can focus on consistently ensuring their child feels loved and understood, they’ll learn that when they are left it will be OK, and that their carer will come back.

Levels of separation anxiety vary widely. Some toddlers may become upset initially when their parent or carer leaves, but are then able to enjoy playing with their toys, and other children and caregivers. But others might not be able to be settled so easily when the caregiver has gone, and comforting or distracting methods don’t work on them.

In some situations, the fear of separation can become so intense that the child spends all their time monitoring where their parent or caregiver is, and not letting them out of their sight for a moment. In these cases, it’s very possible that the child won’t enjoy playing and interacting when the parent is gone. Usually, these responses to separation will lessen with time.

Also see: Relationship with the key person in a childcare setting

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