top of page

Understanding separation destress

Why does my baby or child get so upset when I leave him/her?

Why do I find it so difficult to leave him/her?

Why does something which seems so simple, feel so hard for both of you?

In this post, we will explore why babies find it hard to be separate from us, and why you might also find it difficult to leave your baby.

You’ll also learn some tips to help you manage separation anxiety in older children.

We’ll talk about why you might find separation hard personally, and how to manage those feelings in yourself.

The word to remember is Safety.


It’s hard to talk about separation without talking about two things which are very linked – evolution, and attachment.

When you think about how dependent babies are, it makes a lot of sense that they wouldn’t want to be away from us for the first few months of their life. Babies are born before they are developmentally ready to be independent. Really they should be born when they are about 6 months old! But because we have these big brains, they are born completely and totally dependent on us. Because of this, we can treat the first three months as being a bit like they are still in the womb. The closer they are to us, the safer they feel.

Of course, this can be difficult for many reasons, we might find it personally difficult to have a baby be so dependent on us – and there might be other factors at play too, such as having to go back to work, having other siblings around, having our own physical needs which might mean we have to be separate from them.

Rather than feel guilty about having to separate from our babies and children, it can really help to think about what might make separation easier for them.

Children learn to separate slowly, as they explore the world. They are only able to do this when they are developmentally ready to do so, and that is different for every child. How easy they find it to separate from you depends on a lot of different things – their temperament, their attachment patterns, and how they feel about the others looking after them.

This is where evolution comes in.

The reason a baby, or a toddler or child, expresses distress at being separated from us is because they fear for their safety. Essentially, they are worried about survival.

This is a really fundamental instinct for them.

John Bowlby talked about this when he came up with attachment theory. Babies develop brilliant strategies to keep us interested in them and close to them, so that they can ensure that we will meet their needs.

Toddlers and children work in just the same way, but at this stage they will have internalised those attachment patterns, so they have a greater understanding that when you leave, you will come back.

For both babies and children, the key to a smooth separation is to ensure that they are feeling safe.

It can be tempting to slope away without them noticing, but essentially what we are trying to teach them is ‘Mum leaves, but she also comes back’. Make sure that they have things that they need to feel safe. Of course this means leaving them with someone you trust to keep them safe! That’s a given. But also any comfort objects, things from home, a T shirt that you’ve worn which smells of you can be really comforting for a baby.

A toddler or an older child might want a comfort object like a favourite teddy or blanket, and they should be encouraged to use this for comfort if they need to.

There are lots of other lovely tricks to use with older children. Reading books about separating can help, such as ‘Owl Babies’ by Martin Waddell. And leaving something of yours can be soothing, or drawing a hug button on your child’s hands which they can press to feel close to you!

It’s important to say that it’s ok for babies and children to show their distress at being apart from you.

If they feel safe, they should settle quickly – if they don’t settle fairly quickly (after a period of transition where they are learning that this person or environment is safe for them) you may want to consider other options.

But most children – not all, but most – will be upset that you are leaving and may be upset when you come back. They are just seeking to connect with you again and, as much as it pains us, letting them express that distress will help them to reconnect and move on.

What about what all of that raises for us?

We can find it intensely distressing ourselves when we need to separate from our children. We can also find it irritating! And frustrating!

How we feel about our children’s separations from us – and their upset at separating – really depends on how separations were dealt with when we were children.

If we were taught to buckle up and get on with it, we might find it difficult to tolerate their distress.

If we were anxious ourselves at being left, it’s likely to raise our own anxiety if we need to leave our children.

But knowing that, and being able to reflect on how we want to deal with separations, can really help us figure out how to manage those day to day experiences.

Sometimes it’s enough just to think it through, at other times you may find that you want to get some advice about how to make it easier. That might be from a friend or family member, a nursery keyworker, teacher, or a therapist depending on what you feel you need.

Separations can be difficult and feel uncomfortable or even distressing, for a wide variety of reasons as we’ve discussed.

But they are not only necessary but can be really helpful, they help your child learn that other people love them and can look after them.

And they can really help you to cope with the demands of parenting and achieve things other than mothering.

Helping our children feel safe Can make separation feel smooth Understanding our own emotions can also be important.

There are some lovely tools on the Nourish app which may help you soothe some of your own discomfort during separation.

Thank you for reading, good luck with navigating those separations and don't forget to keep nourishing you!


This article was written by Perinatal Clinical Psychologist, Dr Emma Svanberg, for the Nourish app. The article can be found on the app, together with >100 meditations, breathing exercises and further psychology insights to support mothers wellbeing, from Dr Emma Svanberg and 18 other parental wellbeing experts.

The Nourish App is available on Android and iOS and is free to download and explore.


About the Author:

Dr Emma Svanberg is a mother of 2, a perinatal clinical psychologist, a hypnobirthing teacher, author and Founder of the charity Make Birth Better. Emma’s passion is supporting mums and dads through the transition into parenthood – from pregnancy and birth, up to the challenges of the toddler years. She believes that if we give this time in our lives the attention that it deserves, it can be a transformational time of growth and change.

Emma has written 2 books:


bottom of page