Many parents experience separation anxiety with their child crying when they leave them at nursery but this doesn’t usually mean there is anything to worry about. In fact it is a very normal part of your child’s development.

Separation anxiety

Child psychologists define separation anxiety as referring to the developmental stage during which your child experiences anxiety when separated from you or whoever may be the primary care giver. In other words, this phase is another developmental milestone that most babies go through.

When and why does it happen?

In young children, their unwillingness to leave a parent or a caregiver is a sign that attachments have developed between the caregiver and child. They are beginning to understand that each object and person in the environment is different and permanent. Young children cannot yet understand time, therefore they do not know when or even if you will return.

Up until your baby reaches six months old, she thinks she is still attached to you. However, after this age she becomes more aware of strangers, as health visitor Debbie Honer explains. “Separation anxiety affects all babies to some degree, but some more than others. It begins at around seven months, peaks just after the first birthday and gradually declines up to the age of three.”

Brenda Nixon, author of Parenting Power in the Early Years, says, “Your little one is experiencing more long-term memory, or what experts call cognitive growth. What was once ‘out of sight out of mind’ is now out of sight and still in mind. The thought of your leaving her sight is causing her grief.”

At this age you can expect tears when you leave her with a carer or when she starts nursery. Or you might find that she settles well in the first week, then subsequently cries when she realises that this is a long-term arrangement.

Another trigger for separation anxiety is the birth of a sibling or some other change to her routine either at home or at nursery.

How to make it easier

As a parent it can be very hard seeing your baby or toddler cry but Dr Mandy Bryon, Clinical Psychologist at Great Ormond Street Hospital, says that your child’s tears are perfectly normal. “The tears are just for you. It is perfectly natural for your child to protest and say ‘how can you leave me?’ then be comforted, settle down and enjoy their day.”

So how can you make that first step easier for your child? Dr Jane Collins, chief executive of the Great Ormond Street Hospital for Children NHS Trust says some simple preparation can help your child settle in easier.

  1. Take her past the building several times before she starts, reinforcing the idea that it’s a lovely place to go with tales of what she will be doing.
  2. Most nurseries like to take a couple of weeks to settle a child in so stay for the first, on the second leave after fifteen minutes and so on.
  3. Try taking a favourite toy along
  4. When you leave, say goodbye to your child so she knows you are going and reassure her that you will be back.
  5. Don’t sneak away when she isn’t looking. She will realise you have gone and worry you’re not coming back
  6. Don’t be tempted to go back and check she’s okay as this will only reinforce the tears.

When she won’t let go

Most children settle after a few weeks but if your child seems to consistently cry, Dr Byron suggests you wait outside for a while to reassure yourself that the crying does stop or try phoning half an hour later to see if your child has settled.

Brenda Nixon says, “It is skillful parenting to understand that while separation anxiety is difficult, it is a part of growing and learning to handle new feelings. Your baby is remarkably resilient; with your respect and care, he will learn to cope with losses. Now that’s a valuable life skill.”

When to worry

Babies develop at different rates and some babies take longer to settle in than others but if you suspect that your child is not settling at all, it’s fair to trust your instincts. Ask your childminder or nursery how long the crying goes on for. Most nurseries will soon let you know if your child has been crying all day!

It is worth asking yourself how confident you are in your choice of carer. If you have any doubts at all you may find that both you and your child are happier with a rethink over your childcare arrangements.

Separation anxiety is a developmental stage in your baby’s life and one that she will get through, even if you feel like she never will. Just remember, you don’t often see a 10 year old sobbing hysterically whilst clinging to his mother’s legs outside the school gates!