You used to leave your baby with loved ones or other trusted child care providers with a kiss on the cheek and a quick wave goodbye. Separation anxiety seemed to be a problem only for other kids. Now, however, your goodbyes trigger tears. What's going on?

Between ages 8 and 12 months, children often experience a period of separation anxiety. Frustrating as it may be, separation anxiety is actually an emotional milestone. Your child is beginning to understand that there's only one of you — and you still exist even when you aren't in sight. This can trigger tears when you leave the room or clingy behavior when you attempt to say goodbye.

Separation anxiety usually fades by age 24 months. In the meantime, say goodbye gently and reassure your child that you'll return soon. Separation anxiety rarely requires medical treatment.

Fussing and crying are the classic signs of separation anxiety. Screaming and tantrums are possible, too. During the day, your child may refuse to leave your side. During the night, he or she may wake up and cry for you.

Separation anxiety usually peaks between ages 10 and 18 months. Most children outgrow separation anxiety by age 24 months.

When to see a doctor

If your child's separation anxiety seems intense or prolonged — especially if it interferes with school or other daily activities or includes panic attacks or other problems — consult your child's doctor or a mental health professional. Sometimes separation anxiety is a sign of a more serious condition known as separation anxiety disorder.

Separation anxiety is a normal stage of development for infants and toddlers. As your child realizes that there's only one of you, he or she may become upset when you're not together — even if you just step into another room for a few minutes.

Sometimes, separation anxiety may be triggered by circumstances such as:

  • A new child care situation
  • A new sibling
  • A new home
  • Family stress or tension

Infants and toddlers have little sense of time and few memories of past experiences. When you leave, your child may not know when — or if — you'll return. To ease your child's separation anxiety:

  • Practice goodbyes. Leave your child with a trusted caregiver for short periods of time. Eventually your child will learn that he or she can count on you to return.
  • Time your departure carefully. Your child may be more likely to have a fit when you leave if he or she is tired, hungry or restless. If you can, leave when your child is fed and rested.
  • Give your child something to look forward to. Discuss with your child something fun that will happen while you're gone.
  • Don't prolong your goodbye. If you're leaving your child at home or in another familiar environment, give your child a gentle goodbye — then go. Encourage your child's caregiver to distract your child with a favorite toy or engage your child in a new activity right away. If you're leaving your child in a new environment, you might play with your child for a few minutes to ease the transition. When you leave, remind your child that you'll be back. Be specific about when you'll return, such as "after lunch" or "after your nap."
  • Leave a reminder. Offer a special blanket, stuffed animal or other comforting object for your child to hold while you're gone.
  • Keep the tears in perspective. Your child's tears are an attempt to keep you from leaving. When you're gone, the tears aren't likely to last long — especially once your child is engaged in a new activity.

Remember, separation anxiety is a rite of passage for infants and toddlers. Be patient as your child learns that it's OK to spend time away from you.

Jun. 08, 2012