Friday, September 17, 2010

Separation Anxiety Part I: Behavior and Biology

Recently, we’ve had a couple of readers ask questions about babies and separation anxiety. In this post, we’ll share the basics about separation anxiety and next time, we’ll offer tips to help you deal with those inevitable separations, including traveling away from your baby.

The Basics

By the time infants are about 6 to 8 months of age, they start to have a much tougher time when their parents leave them. They may fuss, cry, and cling frantically to their parents even when they just look like they might be leaving. This “separation anxiety” peaks when children are between 14 and 18 months of age and is much less noticeable in most kids by the time they are 2 or 3 years old. Typically, anxious babies will cry out for their parents when they are leaving, letting them know how unhappy they are and "calling" them to come back. For many babies, this doesn’t last very long after the parent has left but of course, the parent doesn’t know that, since he or she is no longer there to see the baby calm down. Once the child realizes that the parent is not coming back right away, she will be less frantic but sad and less active for awhile until she recovers and rests, gets distracted, or starts to play again. While the response is likely to be similar at all ages, anxiety reactions in older infants tend to be louder and longer than those in younger infants. For parents, the tear stained cheeks, the outstretched arms, and obvious fear they see in their babies’ eyes are heart wrenching. And nearly every mother has a story about how horrible she felt walking away from her screaming baby, even when she was leaving the baby with someone they both loved and trusted.

The Theories

There are a lot of theories about why babies develop separation anxiety. Some researchers think it is a natural response to the biological need for babies to stay near caregivers, especially as they gain the ability to move away from them by crawling, walking, or running. Other researchers think that babies become afraid when they can’t explain why someone who is usually close to them is not there or when they can't predict when their parents are coming back. Others believe it is a physical reaction to the potential removal of the things that make parenting so calming for the infant (like touch, warmth, and food). Still others see the baby’s reaction to separation as a confirmation of different types of parent-baby attachment.

Differences in Babies’ Reactions

For most parents, why a child becomes anxious when they leave is less important than what to do about it. Unfortunately, nearly all parents must face their babies’ anxiety at some point, especially in families with parents who must return to work or school. Some babies react in extreme ways to separation, while others don’t seem to mind very much. How much babies fuss and cry depends a lot on their temperament and also on their earlier experiences with separation. Understanding that babies' anxiety when parents leave is a natural part of being human can help the caregiver who remains with the baby to feel a little more confident and in control. Clearly, the anxious baby needs comfort. Calm understanding and repetition can go a long way to easing the worst of the fears. A consistent caring response will help the baby learn that he will be quite safe until mom or dad comes back.

Next time: Tips to Help Smooth Separation Anxiety

Nurturing Children and Families: Building on the Legacy of T. Berry Brazelton; Barry Lester and Joshua Sparrow (Eds). Wiley Blackwell, 2010.

Social and Personality Development, David R. Shaffer, Wadsworth, 2005.


  1. Infant separation anxiety is bittersweet. My heart tears at his cries but his anxiety is a signal of our bond.

    Thank you in advance for the series.

  2. Great article. Separation anxiety must be solved in a timely manner. Thanks for sharing :D