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Understanding Children: Separation anxiety

Many mothers returning to work are worried about separation anxiety – and not just in their babies! You plan for it carefully, choosing the place, person or people your baby will develop new attachments with while you face returning to that part of your life and self that has been on the back burner for some time.

For some mothers this process brings complicated feelings; like guilt, especially if their baby becomes distressed or displays anger. Questions around how to manage this process of separation arise. When should I go back to work? What type of childcare will make this easier for my little one and me?

Finding your answers, and coping with this phase of transition, might be easier if you can have some understanding about children’s normal process of separation and what separation anxiety means.


Early days

When a baby is born and has his first encounter with the outside world he doesn’t understand what is happening. For 9 months he hasn’t known hunger, or cold, or tiredness. All has been managed and regulated by the mother’s body.

Outside the womb, mothers continue to help their baby regulate, and the baby still experiences biological unity with his mother, allowing the creation of a necessary illusion of still being ‘one’. Despite the baby’s total dependence on his environment, in this illusion he experiences mother as a part of himself that he can control. When he’s hungry and mother brings milk, he feels he has created and commanded it to him. And mothers too feel their babies as an extension of themselves. This phenomenon; the linking of mother’s and baby’s minds in this way, is at the source of the baby’s physical and emotional survival and is the foundation for his later sense of safety.


This illusion of unity, however important it is, cannot and should not be sustained forever. The process of disillusionment – which gives birth to their individual sense of self – begins to happen little by little as the baby experiences unavoidable frustrations, while mothers try their best to read their cries and minds.

He’s hungry and in his mind he tries to magic milk… but he gets a blanket instead. Or he’s feeling wet and cold but he gets milk. He begins to notice that these things he wants and needs come and go together with that lovely face he so enjoys gazing at. From these experiences he begins to construct his inner sense of who ‘mummy’ is. If mummy is sufficiently reliable then he will gradually realize that they are two and not one. This whole process usually takes mother and baby through the whole first year of baby’s life.

What is separation anxiety?

Separation anxiety, in its common form, is what the baby feels when he becomes aware of some degree of separateness between himself and mother, and somewhere in an abstract intangible way, he fears for his and mother’s survival.

We have been on earth for quite some time and biologically and socially we are programmed to try to survive in a hostile wild environment. What would happen to baby if mother went away behind a bush just when a predator happened to walk by?

Crawling, walking and weaning

The process of becoming aware of separateness can feature very subtle changes in your baby. Each step in development, each milestone achieved, is one more step in this direction. Therefore it is very common to observe a baby displaying some form of separation anxiety when he learns to crawl, and then to walk. There is the thrill of being able to move independently, and the possibility of moving away from mother, and then the anxiety. Will he lose mother? Will mother lose him? And this anxiety can be reflected for example in clinginess, and/or baby waking up more often during the night, needing the reassurance of confirming that mother is still there when he needs her.

The whole process of weaning is also a huge step because it brings the independence of food from mother and the realisation that food can be cooked and provided by another. Babies love to grow, they have a strong pull to develop and learn, and when this is the dominating force it is easy to overlook what else is going on. For example, that in order for them to discover and enjoy all the flavours and colours food has to offer them, they also have to let go the exclusivity of their milk and the intimacy associated with it.

This ‘separation anxiety’ is one of the reasons why development is never a simple straight line, why babies move two steps forwards and then a step back before taking stock and moving forward again. They regress to check that – if they need it – the familiar support they had in their previous phase of development is still there for them.

Key points

For the mother who is planning to return to work there are two important messages:

  1. The process of separation (in its internal psychological sense) with its accompanying anxiety, begins to happen from early on and can not be avoided by for example not going back to work.
  2. Frustrations that lead to disillusionment are the fuel for development! Even though babies may become distressed, if things are done in a thoughtful way, and their carers can bear their anxiety and anger (how dare mummy not do what I want!), separation will enrich their inner life and spur their development.


Mother’s curse: guilt

Alongside their excitement at returning to work and relief at having some of the respite from childcare work provides, mothers inevitably feel guilt for leaving their child or wanting to leave their child to reclaim parts of themselves.

Most feel that there is a sudden clash of needs between them and their little one. After arranging good childcare, this is the first emotional hurdle for a mother returning to work: to realise that although they cannot work and be with their little one at the same time, their baby’s needs and their own needs are not in competition!

The settling in period is as much about both of you getting used to the change in practical terms as it is about making enough space internally for the both of you as separate individuals. The successful outcome of this process is that a mother rediscovers—and a baby discovers for the first time—that a new balance can be found and that change does not have to be a bad things. This is an important developmental achievement!

After months of anxiety before going back to work and enrolling their child in nursery, childminder or nanny and worrying about how it will be, many mothers find that their child takes to the new routine with enthusiasm. This can be a relief on the one hand, but it might also be a shock that leaves mothers being the ones most in touch with anxiety and loss, and often struggling with it. In these cases two things might be going on (and they are not mutually exclusive), and they are best explained through a brief example.

One mother rushed after work to pick her toddler from the childminder, always to be greeted initially by a huge enthusiastic grin from afar that would dissolve into an almost tantrum and a firm resolve not to be cuddled by the time she was in front of him. Sometimes this would also be accompanied by requests to be with the childminder for longer. Meanwhile she would hear about how a great time he had had during the day.

Going back to the points to be made: This child was definitely enjoying his day and settling well. But we might also see that part of his way of coping with separation was by placing the feelings of hurt and rejection back to where they had come from. He had felt mother rejecting him by leaving him to go back to work (an almost universal thing!). And what better ways to communicate this than making mother feel exactly the same? In this way a child (a) can be sure that mother can understand him, (b) get some relief from his own hurt by placing it with mother and (c) hopefully get some help processing these feelings by seeing how mother manages them herself. In this case this mother was at times able to talk to her son about his cross feeling at being left and how they had missed each other during the day, while at the same time being calm and maintaining clear behavioral boundaries with him. This effectively rendered the whole experience manageable for both of them.

And the second thing that might be going on? Lets continue with the example. I mentioned that this mother was able to talk to her son about these things at times. At other times she felt overwhelmed; rejected by her child and embarrassed in front of the childminder. And this in turn made her angry with her child. She began noticing that these feelings felt too intense and quite old and by listening to herself (and talking to others) she began to notice that some of these feelings belonged to her own child self. It is an inevitable part of motherhood that our own feelings of dependency and need are relived and reflected back to us through our babies. It is very important that a parent can recognize this and in this way take charge of their own feelings in order to enable their child to learn to do the same. If not, this mother for example, might have been inclined to feel overtly guilty for leaving her son and miss the point that he was settling in really well, and missing her too.

Unprocessed feelings around loss and separation might lead a mother to feel overly guilty about leaving her child and not allow her to perceive her child’s reality accurately. This can get acted out in the moment of dropping off a child in the morning.

Always say goodbye

Sometimes a parent might be so taken by their own feelings of anxiety over separation that they might expect their child to feel the same or even more. They may feel the need to sneak out while the child is distracted and happy (and some might even be encouraged by a childminder or nursery staff to do this) in order to avoid any distress. But who’s distress is really being avoided here? And what happens when the child looks round for his mother and she’s all of the sudden gone?

The message sneaking out of a potentially difficult situation sends out is that the pain of separation cannot be tolerated, that it should not happen and that only nice feelings should exist. When the mother sneaks out the child may be left alone to cope with feelings of hurt.

Even if it is harder at the time, it is very important to prepare a child for what is happening by talking to him, and saying goodbye properly before leaving. This minimizes the child’s confusion, and allows them to be helped through any difficulty by their parent.

Sleep deprivation

A mother returning to work may choose to keep a baby up later, so she can be with him when she gets back home from work. Your new routine may also mean your baby is being woken earlier to get to nursery on time. Couple these shorter sleeps with the added activity and excitement at nursery and you may find yourself with a moody, badly behaved child. Evaluate your reasons for changing a routine and check it is in your child’s best interest before you do so.

However sometimes this decision is taken out of your hands. Very frequently children react to separation by waking up earlier already eager to see mother, make sure she’s there, and be with her the most time possible. Equally they might refuse to go to bed at their appropriate time, wanting yet another bed time story.

Therefore to an extent it is important to know that on top of everything you and your child have to deal with, you have to make some allowances to both of you being sleep deprived and therefore less resilient.

Changes in behaviour

While your child is getting used to their new routine, new ways of sleeping in the day, new food, new playmates and being away from you, changes in their behaviour is normal.

Children find numerous and creative ways of making mothers feel that they are failing them, and not being good enough. All of which is normal and to be expected, as seen in the example discussed above. They might not do it in the same way as the boy in the example but still communicate their feelings by rejecting mother at home and in turn favouring the father (who has probably been at work for the whole time!). You will find this hurtful but all you can do is try be constant, loving and understanding and things will get back to normal in time.

If you find yourself the subject of tantrums – which will probably come at the most inopportune time like when you’re already 5 minutes late for work – try to deal with them in a measured way.

If a stressed parent reacts to an angry tantrum with anger and exasperation back then a child might think that only anger can meet anger and that the stronger one will win. It becomes a battle. Equally, if a parent becomes too patient and soft, the child might feel too powerful. Getting the balance between being understanding yet firm can be difficult when you’re stressed so do ask your partner to be supportive and actively involved in helping you out.


The process of separation can be at times tough and hard going. It is important for mothers to be supported by loved ones and to have some space to talk and think to be in a better place to help her child. Awareness of one’s own self and feelings is key. You might find it relevant to look at the way your own mother helped you with your process of separation as this will influence how you respond to your baby.

Missteps in the dance?

Occasionally separation is too drastic for a baby and they become overly aware of loss and it tinges all their experiences which has an impact on their development. If your baby stays caught in one of these disturbed states for a few months, or if his behaviour is very intense, then you might want to consider getting some help. Also, if you find yourself struggling with difficult feelings in reaction to how your child is with you to the point of it interfering with your sense of being a good enough (not perfect) mother, then having a consultation with a professional might be of great help.

Fiorella Lanata is a Psychotherapist who works with families to further understanding and facilitate change at Jigsaw Therapy.

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