Separation Anxiety In Babies: When Does It Start And How To Handle

When Does Separation Anxiety Start In Babies? Your Guide To (Surviving) This Phase

November 30, 2020 Updated March 25, 2021

separation-anxiety-babies (1)
Cavan Images/Getty Images

Leaving your baby for the first time is a huge milestone for a new mama, but it’s also a pretty tough one to handle — especially if you have a baby who screams and cries at the top of their little lungs as soon as you leave the room. It’s a brutal pull at the heartstrings and it might cause you to wonder, Is this normal behavior? And how are you supposed to, well, get things done? You can also take it as a huge compliment. Your baby would rather scream their little heads off — seemingly for hours — than be away from you. Yay. While you’re dealing with their tantrums and trying to figure out how exactly you’re going to be productive, just remember there will be a time when your kid’s a moody teenager who wants nothing to do with you. So, hey, you might even miss this phase. The good news: Yes, the screaming is normal. It’s called separation anxiety in babies, and it’s very common.

And, yes, you will be able to leave the room (and house) again. Your baby’s anxiety is merely a temporary hiccup in their development. In fact, as your baby goes through this, you shouldn’t let it stop you from taking care of yourself. If things get too overwhelming you’re allowed to take a breath. Sure, your baby is amazing, but mommies need breaks too, even when your kiddo won’t want to let you go. As luck would have it, you can help your little dumpling deal with their stress and frustration without feeling bad, shutting them out, or losing your mind. 

So how do you handle this important milestone in your baby’s life? Read on to learn more about separation anxiety in infants and how you can handle it like a champ.

When does separation anxiety in babies start?

Separation anxiety in your baby starts basically because they’re getting smarter. It typically occurs in most babies between six to eight months old when they realize that they are independent of you. Prior to that, they don’t see you or another caregiver as separate from themselves, so they’re easy peasy with just about everyone. But as soon as they hit that six or eight-month mark, your baby starts to realize, “Hey, wait a minute. I understand who my parents are, and I understand they’re still around even when I can’t see them.”

This is them learning the concept called object permanence, a term that means your baby knows that objects and people exist even if they’re not in the same room. When you factor in that your baby is also learning emotional attachment — and they don’t know if you’re leaving the room for five minutes or forever — you’ve got the perfect concoction for separation anxiety, a.k.a. lots of crying.

Why does separation anxiety in babies happen?

It’s the uncertainty that mostly triggers your baby’s sense of security. They start to feel vulnerable and unsafe. So that’s why they cry when you tuck them in at night, leave the bedroom for a few minutes to fold some laundry, or even attempt to leave the house for a bit. A strange environment and person can also make their separation anxiety worse. Imagine not knowing when your most prized person is coming back and having them leave you with a stranger in a strange place? No wonder there’s a lot of waterworks.

RELATED: Why Newborns and Babies Get the Hiccups

Separation anxiety can even happen when your child is just separated from the parent they see the most (often the breastfeeding mother). So don’t worry if your kid cries when they see you instead of Mama — it’s nothing personal.

But can it be a good thing?

While it doesn’t initially appear to be a “good” thing, you can look at separation anxiety as a little point of pride. It’s a sign that your precious one is growing up! Separation anxiety is a milestone in your baby’s development, even if it might not feel as exciting as when they start walking. You can rest assured that your child is not only growing and developing normally but also connecting and bonding with you. Remember: Absence makes the heart grow fonder.

What are some tips for getting through this phase?

Your baby’s separation anxiety is just as hard on you as it is on your baby. It’s never easy to hear your kid cry, so to help you deal, here are some tips to help you and baby cope. Your child’s cries might cause you to think twice about going out for a much-needed girls’ night or even grocery shopping. However, it shouldn’t stop you from living your life. Giving in will only make it more difficult for your kid to learn how to be on their own without you. So if you want to leave the house before they turn 18, here are a few hacks for handling your little one’s separation anxiety.

  • Play peek-a-boo. This is a fun game, obviously, but it’s also one that has a lot of meaning. Playing peek-a-boo helps babies realize that things (and people) go away but do come back.
  • Mean what you say. Babies have a spidey sense when it comes to big little lies. So if you’re going to say good night to your baby at night, or say “bye-bye” when you leave a room, mean it. Don’t come in a few seconds later after your baby cries. Stick to “say what you mean, and mean what you say,” which helps instill consistency with your baby and allows them to slowly accept your absence.
  • Develop a nighttime routine. A great way for your baby to get used to you being away is establishing a nighttime routine that is calming and soothing for them as well as prepares for the eventual separation when they go to bed. This might include bath time, cuddles, and a bedtime story… followed by a firm good night.
  • Keep calm and mama on. When your baby cries, you might cry. That doesn’t make you a bad parent, it makes you human! Babies tend to feed off of our emotions, though, so you getting upset may trigger them to get more upset. It’ll probably break your heart a little (also a totally human reaction), but stay firm and tell them, “Bye-bye for now.”
  • Try to slip away unnoticed. When leaving your baby, have the person they’re staying with distract them. Your baby will be too wrapped up in a toy or an exciting game of peek-a-boo to realize you left.
  • Avoid leaving when your baby is hungry, tired, or sick. That is when their separation anxiety kicks into high gear. If you need to go, the best time to leave your baby is when they’re calm and happy.

How do you stop separation anxiety in babies?

Separation anxiety has a way of making you feel a little cornered, but don’t worry, Mama. This phase ends eventually, but if you want to help speed it up, here are a few tips to tackle it.

  • Practice makes perfect, right? It’s important to practice separations from your baby, so they become used to the idea of you leaving. First, leave them with someone else for a few minutes, then return. As time goes on, make your trips longer.
  • When leaving, give your baby a treat or stuffed animal to help soften the blow of your absence.
  • While saying goodbye to your nugget, make plans with them for the future. Tell them what you and them will do later when you return.