Separation anxiety is a normal and natural part of development in children but can be torturous on your heart when your baby or toddler won’t let you out of their sight without screaming. Here I give you some tips to overcome this emotional parenting challenge.

Writer: Rebecca Walker, The Conscious Wordsmith


One of the reasons babies freak out so much when separated from their primary caregivers is because they are wrapping their heads around the idea of object permanence (the fact that things still exist, including mum, even when they can’t physically see her). As well as worrying that you’ve disappeared, they don’t know if you’ve gone for one minute or forever. Some ways to help them understand this is to leave them with someone they know (ideally your partner) for short periods of time, 1-hour max to begin with. Try this a few times, then draw out the time span for longer periods. Eventually you will be able to leave them with someone else for the day without them having a meltdown. 


If your child already finds leaving your side hard, the worst thing you can do is draw out your goodbye’s when leaving them with someone else. Instead, it’s best to calmly and clearly explain that ‘Mummy needs to go now but I’ll be back.’ Then leave as quickly as possible, even if they’re protesting. As harsh as this might seem, what’s worse is trying to detach a distressed child from your leg because you’ve taken too long to walk out the door. You might even consider creating a goodbye ritual, such as a sweet song, that you practise each time you say farewell. Kids love routine, and teaching them to understand goodbye rituals helps them understand that having time away from mum is part of life.  


Although drawing out farewell’s is a no-no, so is sneaking off without saying goodbye. Discovering their mother has suddenly disappeared without saying bye is distressing for children, especially if they have attachment issues. Leaving them oblivious to your departure will only make them more anxious the next time you leave. So…put on your big girl pants, look them in the eye, tell them you love them and will be back soon. Even if they’re upset, at least they won’t feel abandoned.


Children are highly attuned to the moods and emotions of their parents. This applies to the mutual anxiety that is triggered by separation. Kids can smell an anxious, emotional parent a mile away and will react accordingly…by ramping up the tears and tantrums. And as much as you might want to melt on the floor in a puddle of tears yourself, it’s your job to remain grounded, stay calm and hold steady when your child is having a meltdown. Park your angst and guilt and hold your tears until you’re out the door. By modelling calm confidence, you are showing your child that farewells don’t need to be a drama. 


When it comes to separation, your baby is more likely to give you a hard time if they are tired, hungry or sick, so be mindful of these triggers when timing your farewells. Make sure they are rested and fed before you attempt to leave or drop them off somewhere and reconsider your timing if they’re not well (perhaps leaving when they’re napping). Separation anxiety tends to dwindle when children are between 18 months and 2 years, so this is an ideal time to introduce day-care. For working mamas who need to return to work sooner than that, your best bet is to introduce bub to caretakers in the early days before ‘stranger danger’ and separation kicks in (usually when they’re around 8 months).