Last reviewed 25 October 2019

Starting at an early years provision can be a daunting and emotional experience for both the parents and child. Some children can feel very distressed when they are left by their parents in a new environment and it is important that practitioners recognise the significance of separation anxiety and support families during this period of transition. Elizabeth Walker looks at the issues involved.

What is separation anxiety?

Although it can be worrying, separation anxiety is a normal stage of development with the onset usually occurring between 6 and 18 months of age. From around six months, babies have a growing awareness of the people and world around them and develop a sense of “object permanence”. They start to understand that things and people exist even when they are out of sight and realise that their parents have left them behind. As babies and young children have no sense of time, this can result in the child becoming very upset if parents leave them, even if they have only gone into the next room for a few minutes.

Although most children experience separation anxiety at some point, both the level of intensity and the duration can vary significantly from child to child. Signs of separation anxiety are usually obvious distress, tantrums, or clingy behaviour when children are being left somewhere or even at bedtime. Separation anxiety decreases as a child gets older, but similar feelings may return for short periods of time for other reasons such as illness, stress or a change in home life.

Attachment theory

Attachment theory states that a strong emotional and physical attachment to at least one primary caregiver is critical to personal development. Psychologist John Bowlby, the founder of attachment theory, argued that the bonds formed by children with their earliest caregivers have a profound impact throughout the child’s life. Bowlby’s research is widely recognised as the foundation for our understanding of the importance of making secure attachments in infancy.

Secure relationships promote emotional wellbeing and support children in their overall learning, development, behaviour and resilience. As well as the emotional bonds children form with their parents, they can also form strong secondary attachments with other caregivers such as key persons.

Attachment and key persons

The Early Years Foundation Stage (EYFS) framework requires all early years providers to assign each child a key person. Attachment is central to the key person approach as children form a bond with a designated member of staff who can provide continuity of care and lessen the anxiety around separation from parents. This strong secondary attachment helps a child to feel secure in their new environment. The key worker approach helps to develop trusting relationships between staff, children and parents and supports the settling-in process.

Settling-in process

Some children settle easily at nursery whereas for others it can take much longer depending on their age and previous experience of being away from home. Initially, it can be a rather overwhelming experience, particularly for children under three, and for those who have not had some form of care outside the home before. First children can find it more difficult and some children adapt more easily to change than others.

There are many ways that early years providers can support the settling-in process and they need to develop flexible procedures that take account of the individual needs of the child and parents. The settling-in period is a gradual introduction of the child to the provision, its children, activities, routines and the staff. The child needs to become familiar with the provision and to feel confident and safe within it.

Settling-in policies and procedures should be made available to parents before their child starts at the provision and could include:

  • offering a home visit before the child starts at the provision

  • arranging pre-start visits for the child and their parents

  • allocating and introducing a key person

  • arranging settling-in sessions which gradually increase in length

  • ensuring effective communication with parents

  • providing ongoing support to families if key persons change, or children transfer to a new provision or school

  • providing staff with training on the importance of attachments and the settling-in process.

Supporting families

It is very important for practitioners to listen to parents’ concerns and show empathy as it can be a difficult time for all the family when separation anxiety occurs. If a child is taking a long time to settle or experiencing difficulties, the key person should work closely with the parents to try different ways to ease the transition, such as:

  • bringing in a comfort or transitional object such as a cuddly toy — this can help a child to feel more secure in a new environment and should never be taken away

  • leaving photographs of family at nursery or articles of clothing that smell of the main carer

  • engaging the child in favourite activities

  • putting a time limit on the handover as children often get more distressed if they see parents lingering anxiously

  • asking the father or another family member to do the drop off as children are sometimes more anxious about leaving their mothers.

Maintaining routines whenever possible is also important as this helps children to feel safe and secure. Sometimes children settle very easily, initially at a provision, and then have problems a few weeks on or at a later date. It is quite normal for children to experience anxiety at some point until they have been at the provision for some time and practitioners should offer support whenever it occurs. How separation anxiety is handled when it first occurs can impact on how a child deals with new situations and environments going forward, so it is important that providers take it seriously and offer continued support to both the parents and child.

Separation anxiety disorder

Some children experience a continuation or reoccurrence of intense separation anxiety and this could be a sign of a larger problem. If separation anxiety is excessive enough to interfere with normal activities like nursery or school, and lasts for months rather than days, it may be a sign of a separation anxiety disorder.

Key warning signs that a child may have separation anxiety disorder are extreme over attachment to parents and a persistent perception that the family is in danger when separated from the child. A child might find it difficult saying goodbye to parents, being alone on one floor of the house, or going to sleep and often suffer from persistent nightmares. Physical symptoms might also occur in anticipation of separation, such as stomach aches, headaches and dizziness.

Long-term anxiety can severely interfere with a child’s personal development, family life and schooling. Anxiety disorders that start in childhood often persist into the teenage years and early adulthood so it is very important that families access the relevant professional support when they realise there is a more serious problem.