Babies and toddlers often get clingy and cry if you or their other carers leave them, even for a short time.
Separation anxiety and fear of strangers is common in young children between the ages of 6 months and 3 years, but it's a normal part of your child's development and they usually grow out of it.
Why separation anxiety happens
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 not seem to make sense when they start crying whenever you're not there or strangers are close.
But separation anxiety is a sign your baby now realises how dependent they are on the people who care for them. That can include their grandparents or professionals closely involved with their care, as well as their parents.
As they get 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, even if you are there.
How to handle separation anxiety
Separation anxiety can make it difficult to leave your baby at nursery or in someone else's care. You may feel distressed by their tears and worry about the effect on your baby every time you need to leave them.
Remember, it's only natural for your baby to feel anxious without you, so there's no reason to feel guilty when you need to get on with other parts of your life. In fact, separation anxiety is usually a sign of how well you have bonded with them.
Instead, you can focus on helping your baby understand and deal with their feelings so they feel more secure. They'll learn that if you leave them, they will be OK and you will come back. If your baby's old enough, you can talk to them about what's happening, where you're going and when you'll be with them again.
By leaving your baby with another caregiver, you won't damage them. You're actually helping them learn to cope without you, and that's an important step towards their growing independence. Don't be too hard on yourself – separation anxiety is common and it's normal.
Tips for separation anxiety
Dr Angharad Rudkin, a clinical psychologist, has these tips to help you.
Practise short separations from your baby to begin with
You could start by leaving them in someone else's care for a few minutes while you nip to the local shop. Leave your baby with 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.
Talk about what you'll do together later
Talk to your toddler about what you're going to do when you see them again so they have something to look forward to with you. 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 comforting with your baby
It may comfort your baby to have something they identify with you – like a scarf with your scent on or a favourite toy – close by. This may reassure them while you are away.
Make saying goodbye a positive time
When you leave your baby, however sad or worried you may be feeling, smile and wave goodbye confidently and happily, otherwise they will pick up on your tension. By giving your baby experience of saying goodbye then having happy reunions, you are teaching them an important life lesson.
When to get help for separation anxiety
"It's completely natural for babies and toddlers to cry when they part from their main caregiver," says Dr Rudkin. "But as babies get older, they're more able to understand that people and things exist even when they can't see them."
Until that happens, it's important your baby's anxiety doesn't stop them getting the most from new experiences like socialising and learning at nursery. And it shouldn't stop you going to work.
"If your child's separation anxiety is causing them a lot of distress, they are upset for a long time after you have left them, or it has been going on for more than a few weeks, talk to your health visitor," says Dr Rudkin.
Video: my child wants to be with me all the time - what can I do? (6 to 18 months)
This video explains what you can do if your child wants to be with you all the time.
Media review due: 2 March 2024