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Separation anxiety in children

6-minute read

Key facts

  • Separation anxiety in children is a fear of being separated from their parent or carer.
  • It's normal for babies and young children to be upset when someone they love leaves, even for a short time.
  • Separation anxiety usually starts at 6 to 8 months old and usually improves as a child nears school age.
  • There are many strategies you can use to reduce your child's anxiety and help them settle into a new environment.
  • If your child's anxiety is severe, does not improve over time, and interferes with their daily functioning, it's a good idea to see your doctor for advice.

What is separation anxiety?

Separation anxiety is when your baby or young child becomes distressed or anxious at being separated from people who are usually close to them.

Separation anxiety is a normal part of development, and not a sign that you are doing anything wrong. In fact, separation anxiety can be a sign that your child has a close attachment (bond) to you, which is important for your child’s development.

What causes separation anxiety?

Separation anxiety is a normal part of growing up. Babies become attached to those close to them, usually their parents. They feel safe when they can see people they know and love.

Being separated from the people who make them feel safe can make them feel anxious, especially if they do not understand that their loved ones will return.

Babies and children may experience separation anxiety when they are first put to bed by themselves or are left in a new environment with unfamiliar people, such as day care.

What are the signs of separation anxiety?

Children show their anxiety in different ways, depending on their age and personality.

  • crying
  • tantrums
  • clinging to you
  • shyness
  • refusing to speak
  • refusing to be comforted by anyone else

Some children will express separation anxiety as physical symptoms, such as:

  • headaches
  • stomach aches and/or vomiting
  • difficulty sleeping

What can I do to help my child settle into a new environment?

It's important to acknowledge your child's emotions and help them cope with their anxiety. At the same time, it is important to find a balance between supporting and reassuring your child, and giving them the chance to manage their own feelings and develop resilience.

There are a few strategies you can use to help your child manage separation anxiety. When you leave your child:

  • Leave them with someone they already know, if you can.
  • Develop a regular drop-off routine, so your child knows what to expect.
  • Don't leave without saying goodbye, but try to keep your goodbye brief.
  • Tell your child when you'll be back in a way they can understand (for example, 'I'll pick you up after lunch'), and stick to this plan.
  • Give your child a comfort object to hold, for example, a dummy, teddy or blanket, or something of yours.

The person caring for your child can help by:

  • Greeting your child warmly and calmly.
  • Making sure they’re settled into an enjoyable activity before you leave.
  • Communicating regularly with you, so they are aware of any events in your child's life that may increase their anxiety.

When you return, give your child your full attention — they have been missing you and it's important to show how happy you are to see them again.

What can I do if separation anxiety gets more serious?

Separation anxiety usually improves over time as your child grows up and becomes used to different people and situations. If it continues, or if you see major changes in your child’s behaviour, such as panic, nightmares, or excessive worries and fears, they could be developing an anxiety disorder.

About 1 in 25 preschool and school-age children develop an anxiety disorder. Sometimes this can follow stressful events, such as moving house or changing childcare settings, another baby coming into the family or parents separating.

Here are some signs that your child may need extra support with their anxiety:

  • They seem to feel more anxious than other children in the same setting.
  • They get upset easily and cry over small things.
  • They avoid situations they feel worried about.
  • Their fears and worries seem out of proportion with what is happening in their life.

Anxiety can interfere with your child’s health and wellbeing, especially as they get older.

There’s lots of support available, so if your child is struggling, it’s a good idea to see your doctor for advice.

Where can I get more information about separation anxiety in children?

If you’re worried about your child having separation anxiety, you can speak to a maternal child health nurse by calling Pregnancy Birth and Baby on 1800 882 436.

You can also talk to your doctor, paediatrician or your local community health centre. They can advise or refer you to a specialist clinic if necessary.

Speak to a maternal child health nurse

Call Pregnancy, Birth and Baby to speak to a maternal child health nurse on 1800 882 436 or video call. Available 7am to midnight (AET), 7 days a week.

Learn more here about the development and quality assurance of healthdirect content.

Last reviewed: June 2022

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Call us and speak to a Maternal Child Health Nurse for personal advice and guidance.

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