When your baby wants no-one but you it can be flattering… but also stifling. Here’s how to deal with the tricky clingy stage.
A lot of babies and toddlers go through a clingy stage. It mostly happens when they are between 10 and 18 months but it can start as early as six months old. Here we talk about what separation anxiety is and how to deal with it.
What is separation anxiety?
Separation is a normal part of your child’s development. It happens when they get distressed and anxious when they are separated from their main carers (Murray, 2014; AAP, 2015). They might get upset by new faces or the absence of the old ones.
Separation anxiety usually starts before a child’s first birthday and can last until they turn four years. The intensity and timing of separation anxiety vary a lot from child to child (Health Guide, 2018).
What are the signs of separation anxiety?
Your baby might show a number of signs of separation anxiety. They might cry when left with someone else. They might not want to play on their own. They might start waking up early or they might start having sleeping problems (Psychology Today, 2018).
But it’s never happened before – why now?
Separation anxiety is a healthy reaction to separation and is a normal stage of development. It’s a sign your child’s awareness of the world is evolving and that they know they are dependent on you or their other main carers. So separation makes them feel unsafe. The good news is that this awareness is a step forward (Murray, 2014).
How can I handle separation anxiety?
Whether it happens when you go back to work or appears as your baby showing a preference for one parent, it can be hugely upsetting. An emotional rollercoaster for parents and babies too. So here are some tips for managing this ‘clingy stage’...
1. Build up the separation gradually
You could try leaving them with someone they know well for a short time at first. Build up gradually to longer stints with people they know less well. They’ll get there (Help Guide, 2018).
You could also try practising short-term separations around the house. Such as if you go to another room, talk to your baby and when you return, tell them that you are there. They will understand that your disappearance is only temporary (NHS, 2018; Psychology Today, 2018).
2. If they’re old enough, plan for later
You could talk to older babies and toddlers about what you’ll be doing later. You might talk to them about having dinner together later, the play date you’re taking them on after nursery finishes, or the book you’ll both read this afternoon.
With this you’re reinforcing the message that yep: you will be coming back. It’s also important that you follow your promises to build your child’s confidence (Help Guide, 2018, NHS, 2018).
3. Leave something familiar with them
A little toy they love or something with your smell on it, like a scarf or jumper, might comfort clingy babies (Famlii, 2018; NHS, 2018).
4. Don’t weep in front of them
Yes, we know, leaving your baby for the first time at nursery makes you want to sob like a heartbroken 18 year-old. But wait. Smile, wave and then walk round the corner, find a coffee shop and a good mate and do your sobbing there.
The last thing a clingy baby will benefit from is picking up on your tension. It’s not always easy but try to shield them from your upset (Psychology Today, 2018; NHS, 2018).
5. Wait it out
Your baby will not, we promise you, be clingy forever. One day, you will go to work waving them off at nursery happily. You’ll drop them at your friend’s house for half an hour without even thinking about it.
Most separation anxiety eases when they’re around 24 months so it might just be a case of being patient (AAP, 2013). If intense separation anxiety lasts into preschool, elementary school or beyond, and if it causes interference with daily activities, do discuss with your doctor. It could be sign of a rare disorder called separation anxiety disorder (KidsHealth, 2016).
6. Hang around
Being clingy isn’t a drug addiction: your baby doesn’t need to go cold turkey. So helping them to get used to independent life is absolutely fine.
If your baby is going to a new childminder or staying with someone new, hang around for the first few times. That way they’ll build up a trust while you are still in the room too. You could try leaving your child for short a period of time until they get used to being away from you for longer (KidsHealth, 2016).
7. Get a routine
Just like bedtime, babies benefit from regular patterns in their goodbyes too. Whether it’s a kiss, wave and a ‘mummy will be back soon’ or whatever variation, pick something that works and stick with it (KidsHealth, 2016). Creating an exit ritual is important as it will help them understand that ‘mummy always leaves after kissing and saying goodbye and comes after some time’ (AAP, 2015).
If your child hates it when you go out but will happily crawl off into another room by themselves, foster that. Wait a couple of minutes – as long as the rooms are child-proofed of course – before you head after them. That way, they’ll get a little bit more used to being without you (Psychology Today, 2018).
9. Don’t do the slope off
Lots of people might have told you that a good way to leave a clingy child is to slope off when they’re not watching. But this will quite likely mean your child thinks that sometimes, you disappear and they don’t get any warning, so they had better watch out. Instead, say a proper, happy goodbye and then leave (AAP, 2015; Psychology Today, 2018).
10. Don’t feel guilty
If your worry over the clingy stage is that you’re traumatising them for life, we can tell you this is not true. Instead, what they’re going through is a normal step on the way to being independent.
Your child will eventually understand that you always return after you leave and that makes them feel comforted (KidsHealth, 2016). Oh and FYI: it’s also a sign that they have a healthy relationship and attachment to you. So pat yourself on the back for that.
This page was last reviewed in April 2019.
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American Academy of Pediatrics. (2015) How to ease your child’s separation anxiety. Available at: https://healthychildren.org/English/ages-stages/toddler/Pages/Soothing-Your-Childs-Separation-Anxiety.aspx [Accessed 18th October 2018]
Child Mind Institute. (2018) Separation anxiety: what is it ? Available at: https://childmind.org/guide/separation-anxiety-disorder/sad-what-is-it/ [Accessed 18th October 2018]
Famlii. (2018) Coping with separation anxiety: tips that build trust with your child. Available at: https://www.famlii.com/tips-dealing-with-separation-anxiety-in-babies-toddlers/ [Accessed 18th October 2018]
Help Guide. (2018) Separation anxiety and separation anxiety disorder. Available at: https://www.helpguide.org/articles/anxiety/separation-anxiety-and-separation-anxiety-disorder.htm [Accessed 18th October 2018]
KidsHealth. (2016) Separation anxiety. Available at: https://kidshealth.org/en/parents/sep-anxiety.html [Accessed 18th October 2018]
Murray L. (2014) The development of children’s communication in the first two years: a research overview. Perspective. 23: June. Available from: https://www.nct.org.uk/sites/default/files/related_documents/Murray%20T… [Accessed 18th October 2018].
NHS. (2018) Separation anxiety. Available at: https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/pregnancy-and-baby/separation-anxiety/ [Accessed 18th October 2018]
Psychology Today. (2018) Separation anxiety. Available at: https://www.psychologytoday.com/gb/conditions/separation-anxiety [Accessed 18th October 2018]