Calming a Child Who Won’t Separate

It’s good to feel needed, but when we become parents, we realize we never knew “needy”.  As Magda Gerber aptly noted, parenting brings with it a “feeling of un-freeness”, whether we’re in the presence of our children or not.

Toward the end of the first year of life (when children become more aware of the separation between themselves and their parents) and periodically throughout the early years, we primary caregivers often become the sole object of our child’s desire. Clingy periods tend to coincide with children taking developmental steps toward independence (like learning to walk).  Sometimes they occur when children face new situations or transitions (for example, mom’s expecting). As understandable as this is, it’s still intensely stifling, frustrating and guilt-inducing when our lovable ball-and-chain can’t let us out of her sight for even a second.

When babies are around 9-12 months old, parents in my classes often share a common, enlightening scenario: “All I’m doing is making a quick trip to the bathroom or taking a shower, and my baby screams and cries inconsolably. What should I do?!” Obviously, they’re deeply distressed about putting their baby through such agony — but then it turns out the baby wasn’t alone after all (or with the Boogeyman). She was with her doting dad.


Not to downplay infant emotions, but is this baby in desperate need? Or is this a healthy expression of her developing will? Either way, the situation is tough for baby, mom and dad. Here’s what I suggest to ease the anxiety all around and help everyone cope when children are feeling clingy:

1. Encourage autonomy

The way we perceive our children has a profound influence on them. While some experts refer to newborns as “helpless”, Magda Gerber made the seemingly minor — but important — distinction that babies are dependent, not helpless. She believed that babies are innately capable if we allow them to be, and this has been affirmed for me a thousand times over. Magda called this having “basic trust” in babies, and it is key to her approach.

One of the things most babies can do (and seem to greatly enjoy doing) is spend baby-directed time on their own. We might first notice this when we see our newborn awaken and look around for a while before indicating she needs us. These delicate “seeds” of independence are sown when we refrain from showering our babies with love at these times and just quietly observe. If we provide scattered minutes like these in a safe place, they can then evolve into longer and longer periods of baby “me” time, — a time for exploring, learning, creating, communing with “self”. Granting children this uninterrupted time and space from the beginning, but never forcing it, fosters healthy autonomy.

This bit of independence doesn’t eliminate separation anxiety and clinginess, but it definitely seems to lessen the frequency, intensity and duration of these episodes. And that makes sense, because children who have tasted autonomy have the inexorable knowledge that they can be more than fine for a time on their own.

2. Don’t overreact

Babies are aware and impressionable, which means that they are constantly receiving messages from us through our responses and behavior. For example, if our baby is trying to roll over and we instantly swoop in and turn her over or scoop her up at the first sound she makes, she’s going to believe she’s incapable of coping with even the smallest struggles herself.

On the other hand, if we sit down next our baby, bend down to her level, acknowledge her feelings and efforts, wait a little and then — if she continues crying — ask her if she wants to cuddle in our lap, she will receive an equally loving, far more empowering message. Often she’ll end up choosing to persevere with her task once she’s been heard and understood. These messages we transmit to our children add up to them feeling either secure and competent, or dependent on our “magic powers” to rescue them.

3. Separate with confidence

Again, children are very sensitive to our feelings. If we are feeling ambivalent, upset, guilty, etc. about leaving them in a safe place while we separate, there’s little chance that our child is going to be able to let us go gracefully. If we’re unsure, how can our child possibly feel secure?

So I recommend always telling your child you will go (sneaking out creates much more anxiety and mistrust), and doing so with kindness, assuredness and confidence in your child as fully capable of handling this situation. “I’m going to the bathroom and will be back in 5 minutes.” If you can remember to, it’s always best to leave out the “okay?” at the end, since that implies uncertainty or a need for the child’s permission.  If the child cries as you are trying to leave, acknowledge, “I hear you. You don’t want me to go. I’ll be back.”

4. Don’t talk children out of their feelings.

Acknowledge your child’s feelings about your separation without even a hint of judgments like, “But I’ve played with you all morning!” Fully accept them. Encourage the parent or caregiver who remains with the child to support the child to grieve your temporary loss for as long as they need to while calmly assuring the child. “Mommy will come back.”  Ask them not to distract, “shush” or tell the child “you’re okay”, just keep acknowledging the feelings, listening, offering support and hugs if the child wishes.  Children’s feelings are valid and need to be treated as such.

6. Give children confidence-building opportunities to separate (and return to their secure base)

Here’s a reminder I give parents in my classes, especially when they are concerned about their child clinging and not playing: Think about it — we’re almost always the ones who initiate separations with our children. Children also need to feel trusted to separate and return as needed. (Confidence in our children to experience this is essential to them forming secure attachments according to Bowlby’s Attachment Theory.)

But child-led separation can’t happen if we follow babies and toddlers around. This is one of the reasons in the RIE Parent/Infant Guidance Classes we recommend parents find a seat and stay put. When we follow children in safe play situations like these, we send them the message that we don’t believe them capable of being away from us. Perhaps we do this because we think we have to show our child how to play (don’t worry, we don’t). Or could it be that we’re the ones having trouble separating here?

Staying in one place is especially important in group situations, because then the child knows exactly where we are, which frees her to separate with confidence when she’s ready.

5. Accept clinginess readily

I advise never resisting clinginess. Yes, there are times we need (or want) to separate, and that’s a healthy and positive thing to do. Parents’ needs and limits are an integral part of the parent/child relationship. Taking care of ourselves (even when our child disagrees) and feeling confident about that is vital to our bond.

Then there are those times at the playgroup, the park, a party, or even just at home when we might expect our child to be out playing or socializing, but our child is glued to us. Release those expectations or wishes — let clinginess be. In fact, welcome it. Don’t entertain, just let the child sit with you and watch. Coaxing, redirecting, pointing out all the wonderful children and toys our child could be playing with only intensifies her desire to cling.

When we trust that our child needs to be close and give her the assurance that we don’t resist this in the least, separation anxiety eases.

So whenever possible — give in wholeheartedly. Hold your child close and try to imagine the day she no longer wants to spend time on your lap (or doesn’t fit very well). Ugh, never mind, let’s not go there.


I share more about this respectful approach in my book:
Elevating Child Care: A Guide to Respectful Parenting




Please share your comments and questions. I read them all and respond to as many as time will allow.

  1. Thank you for this post. I’m desperate for your advice on this!

    My 1 year old has extreme separation anxiety with his dad, but not with me (and I’m his main caregiver), to the point where he won’t let me hold him or pick him up when he is distressed if his dad is around.

    Our son never developed separation anxiety with me, is this normal? Does this mean we don’t have a secure attachment? If his dad isn’t around, he will let me help him and carry him, and he does come to me over strangers and other family members.

    I never developed a secure attachment with my own mum, I wonder whether I’m projecting my insecurities onto my son. Please help!

    1. Hi Bianca – I hope to reassure you that not every child experiences separation anxiety, and I’m also not sure that’s what your boy is feeling in regard to his dad. I would not assume that the feelings he expresses are “distress.” They might simply be, “Hey, I like that guy and I want him to hold me!” Sometimes that will be able to happen for him and other times not, but either way he has a right to express these feelings, and I would acknowledge and perceive them as strong assertions, rather than deep sadness and distress. I think you’re spot on that you may be projecting fear and insecurity into this situation. I am so sorry you did not get what you needed from your mother. Nothing you’ve shared leads me to believe that your boy is not attached to you in a healthy manner. Have you read this post of mine?
      I also have a podcast on this topic. It is a very, very common concern parents have. Take care, I’m sure you’re doing well by your boy.

  2. …What if it’s still happening at 4 1/2?! Child that can’t be alone in the same room for five minutes. Exhausting! Please lead me to an age appropriate resource.

  3. I have a 16 month old that I just cannot leave for a second without her screaming the house down. When I’m in the room she will come sit on my lap, then two seconds later she is back down and wanting to get right back up. She cries almost constantly. I also have a 4 year old who has Down syndrome and she has started to copy the behavior of my toddler, presumably because she sees the attention that is gained by this behavior.

    I’m at my wits end and this usually calm momma is beginning to lose the plot and doesn’t know how to change this situation.

  4. Dimple Meneses says:

    Hi Janet!

    What should my response be when I let my 16 month old daughter play on her own and I sit outside her gated play area, but she keeps calling out for me and whines? She would explore her play area sometimes, but most of the time she’s glued at the gate and reaches for my hand.

  5. Hi Janet,

    My 3.5yr old daughter appears to be quite anxious socially and often will scream and leap off a playground if another kid is coming towards her. She tries to get away from them and does a bit of a panic cry. She attends kindergarten and has one friend there but doesn’t play with other children, to me this seems okay and age appropriate. I just would have thought she would be less scared of others having been at kindergarten for more than 6 months.

    One thing I struggle with is that we’ve always gone to a music playgroup where you sit in a big circle and the kids go get various instruments and props from the front at the beginning of each song. It pains me that she won’t get them on her own and will flat out refuse if I don’t go with her. I have tried not going and encouraging her in various ways but she will just sit with me and not participate, and act grumpy for the rest of the session. For her first 2 years of life her brother was basically her social wingman and having to do that stuff on her own is tricky.

    Would you suggest the hands off approach of just sitting together and observing (though I don’t see us continuing to attend if that happened for too long) or continuing to be gentle and go with her?

  6. Attachment kicks in at around 8 months and lasts till around 3 years. It is an ancient biological response to keep the child close to the the mother or primary care giver and to stop them crawling or walking off and possibly getting lost or worse, being eaten by a predator. It is programmed in. Hard wired in. Once you know this, and understand the biology of it, it may help you understand your child better and reduce any guilt, concern or frustration you feel. Go with it. Organise your life to allow them to be attached to you and close. Enjoy it. They will learn from you and observe you and grow and develop naturally as Mother Nature intended.

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