Separation anxiety in babies and toddlers is when they are afraid of being separated from a particular person which is usually their mum. They will often get clingy, and cry and it can be distressing for the carers/ parents to see.
Separation anxiety and fear of strangers is very common in young children (babies/ toddlers) between the ages of 6 months and 3 years; it's a normal part of your child's development and they usually grow out of it.
Why separation anxiety occurs
From birth, babies begin to recognise and understand a person’s or object’s regular presence in their life. So, when they are placed away from what they are familiar with, they can become afraid and anxious. In addition, the concept of time is not understood by babies and they may feel that the person/ object that has gone for whatever period, will not come back. Babies only begin to understand the concept of time when they are 6–12 months old.
If your baby used to be calm when you left the room and they were happy to be held by people they didn't know, it may seem worrying that they now start crying whenever you're not there or strangers are close. Separation anxiety is a however a sign that your baby now realises how dependent they are on the people who care for them. As they become more aware of their surroundings, your baby's strong relationship with this small group means they don't feel so safe without you. Their growing awareness of the world around them can also make them feel unsafe or upset in new situations or with new people.
When toddlers become more independent during toddlerhood, they may develop a more acute sense of separation as they are more aware of their surroundings and of time. This may result in them going through another phase of separation anxiety. In many cases, separation anxiety fades naturally as a child gets older. Sometimes certain changes in a toddler’s life can trigger or exacerbate separation anxiety and these can include: The birth of a new sibling; Moving to a new home; Starting a nursery; Being unwell; Picking up on family stress etc. Some studies even suggest that certain parenting styles exacerbate this anxiety. When young children are not encouraged to make their own decisions they may feel out of their depth and alone when their ‘constant’ caregiver/ decisionmaker is not around. This only reinforces clinginess and anxious behaviour.
Difficulties for the caregiver
Separation anxiety can make it difficult to leave baby/ toddler at nursery or in someone else's care. The caregiver may feel distressed by their tears and worry about the long-term effect on the young child every time they are left with someone else.
Remember, it's only natural for children to feel anxious in unfamiliar settings, so there's no reason to feel guilty when there is a need for the caregiver to get on with other parts of their life. In fact, separation anxiety is usually a sign of how well the child has bonded with them
The focus should be on helping the young child understand and deal with their feelings so they feel more secure. They'll learn that if the caregiver leaves them, they will be OK and that they will come back. See below for some tips:
- Start with short separations with another caregiver: By leaving the baby/ toddler with another caregiver, won't damage them. They are being helped to become more independent and confident. You could start by leaving them in someone else's care for a few minutes while you pop out to the local shop. This someone should be someone they know well so they still feel comfortable and safe in your absence. Gradually work towards longer separations, and then leaving them in less familiar settings.
- Communicate with them: Talk to your baby/toddler about what you're going to do when you see them again so they have something to look forward to when you come back. For example, you could say: "When Mummy comes back to pick you up, we'll go to the shop together to get food for dinner."
- Leave something familiar with your baby/ Toddler: It may comfort the young child to have something they identify with you or caregiver – like a small blanket with your usual perfume/ scent. Or a favourite toy. This may reassure them whilst they are away from their place or person of familiarity. Record your voice on a device for the child to repeat and get comforted by.
- Positive goodbyes! When you leave your young child, however sad or worried you may feel, smile and wave goodbye confidently and happily, otherwise they will pick up on your own anxiety and stress. By giving your young child the experience of saying goodbye then having happy reunions, you are teaching them an important life lesson of becoming secure and feeling loved.
How to use Jaspar to aid Separation Anxiety
Jaspar the Dreamy Elephant has many features which can be used positively to help reduce separation anxiety in young children (babies/ toddlers):
- Cuddles and white noises: Jaspar is cuddly and can be the young child’s best friend / companion. Encourage them to listen to the comforting white sounds and heartbeat. These are all comforting features and the easily identifiable paws make it so easy to operate.
- Record your own voice: The caregiver can record something on Jaspar; something soothing and comforting such as …” Mummy will be back in 2 hours and I hope you have a lot of fun in the meantime. Patsy will be looking after you and you will see Tom and Maddy, so have fun playing with them!”. Or “Grandma will look after you today …have lots of fun and I will be back to pick you up later…. Grandma is making shepherd’s pie today …you are such a lucky boy!” Or record child’s favourite soothing nursery rhyme or lullaby. There are so many baby meditations on the internet, so have a look and explore some of those for recording. Some parents feel that recording religious hymns and verses also helps their child relax. It is entirely up to the caregiver.
On a Positive Note
Although separation anxiety can be distressing for both young children and caregivers, it is a sign that the child is securely attached to their caregiver. This means the child has formed a strong and healthy bond with their parent or caregiver, which is important for social and emotional functioning throughout life. Separation anxiety is therefore a normal part of childhood as this blog details.