Separation Anxiety
Disorder debunked

by Chaley-Ann Scott


In our fast-paced, materialistic world dominated by the dual-income family, it is common for children as young as eight months to be labelled with Separation Anxiety Disorder if they protest strongly about being separated from their parents.

Everywhere you look, parents are being encouraged to nip this behaviour in the bud. Leaflets and articles about the subject can be found in magazines, childcare centres, and doctors offices all advocating a similar approach to this so-called ‘problem’ in our young.

Apparently, we are doing our children and ourselves a great disservice if we don't separate from them from a very early age. Woe betide us if we don’t – otherwise they will be too dependent on us, and we won’t have time for ourselves to do other things.

Apparently, when we do leave our child, we should not hesitate if they cry or protest, but walk away swiftly without turning back. The majority of childcare centres, medics, and educators all reassure us that, despite every fibre in our being screaming at us to scoop up our child, we should ignore our instincts. We are told our child will likely calm down quickly with no lasting damage done, and we can be on our way. But should we really listen to these ‘experts’ or should we listen to our instincts and our child?

The damage of early separation

Governments have been promoting the positives of early separation and childcare for decades with financial incentives to get us back into the workforce as soon as possible after birth.

In Australia, Commonwealth Government spending on childcare has increased by 4000% in real terms since 1980. However, the mental health profession believes that the damage to children mentally due to early separation is considerable.

British psychologist, Dr Penelope Leach (Your baby and child: from birth to age five, 1997) conducted an anonymous study of 450 infant mental health professionals from 56 countries who were members of the World Association for Infant Psychiatry and Allied Disciplines. When asked what care they considered likely to be the best from birth to 36 months, the majority said that from the infant’s point of view it was ‘very important’ for babies to have their mothers available to them ‘through most of each 24 hours’ for more than a year and ‘ideal’ for infants to be cared for ‘principally by their mothers for durations averaging 27 months’.

Leach concluded: “Those findings suggest that there are many professionals in infant mental health who believe that a child’s best interests would be best served by patterns of early child care diametrically opposed to those politicians promise, policy-makers aspire to provide and mothers strive to find.”

The Australian Association of Infant Mental Health states that recent studies of the concentrations of the stress hormone, cortisol, in young children in long day care show that the stress hormone in infants and toddlers in child care rises throughout the day compared with children who remain at home, even in high quality care for infants and toddlers.

One very recently published paper has found associations between time in long day care and cortisol levels in adolescence related to antisocial behaviour. They state that, “secure attachment relationships are one of the most important foundations for future development and is totally dependent on appropriate relationships.”

Dr Bruce Perry, a world leader in study of child trauma, emphasises the importance of responsive care and touch for babies, and the fact that the younger the child the more impact experiences have on the developing brain.

“The neural systems responsible for mediating our cognitive, emotional, social and physiological functioning develop in childhood and, therefore, childhood experiences play a major role in shaping the functional capacity of these systems. When the necessary experiences are not provided at the optimal times, these neural systems do not develop in optimal ways.”

It is a rare mother indeed who does something they think will harm their child in any way. Many working mothers will argue that after the initial settling-in period, their babies or toddlers no longer cry when taken to childcare.

Influential child psychologist John Bowlby (Attachment and Loss Volume II: Separation, 1975) argues that this isn’t because their babies have settled in, but because they have given up protesting. Many child psychologists agree with his theory that what is actually happening is the trust the child had for their mother is broken and the child detaches – the general consensus in the field being that it takes up to four years for a child to have brief periods away from their mothers without feeling a sense of loss.

Leach (1997) says it is so important for us to listen to our children’s protests, “Whatever you are doing, however you are coping, if you listen to your child and to your own feelings, there will be something you can actually do to put things right or make the best of those that are wrong.”

Does Separation Anxiety Disorder exist?

Separation anxiety disorder is a myth, a creation, a fallacy.

Are our children anxious about being separated from us? Yes. Is that abnormal or dysfunctional? No.

The idea that it is has been created by a society that encourages us to separate from our children from such a young age, and doesn't support us to do otherwise. Our babies and children are just responding to being separated from us the way nature intended – by protesting as loud and as long as they can stand. Eventually they will give up (depending upon their personality), but they will still be emotionally affected by it.

Attachment parenting guru, Dr Sears, stated that “Mothers themselves experience separation anxiety when not with their baby. If this "anxiety" appears in normal mothers, shouldn't it also be normal in babies? ...Labels such as "stranger anxiety" or "separation anxiety" are adult jargon, reflecting our expectations of how we want babies to act for our own convenience, not how babies really are, or what they really need.”

What if I need to work?

Both men and women feel the increasing pressure to provide in our consumer-driven world. There is a checklist of must-haves for families today that is desperately hard to achieve on two incomes let alone one, making the working mother and childcare train very difficult to jump off once you get on. We know the economy requires our labour and our spending power, but surely our children must have first dibs. Their need is greater.

Getting through the glass ceiling, better services, sexual harassment laws, equal pay, maternity leave, employment laws – all important gains that were hard fought and won for women. But motherhood is feminism's unfinished business. Our governments are choosing to ignore the accumulating evidence of risk to the mental health and wellbeing of mothers and children resulting from early separation. They don’t promote social settings, which support healthy, more natural mothering of small children. Despite all the information readily available out there about the negative effects of childcare and early separation, the ‘good-for-women-good-for children’ argument is a powerful one that has convinced many women in top positions in the social sciences and politics, that more non-parental childcare is a positive step forward.

Things aren't going to change anytime soon however, so what can we do? We can remember that our children are small and need our close attachment for such a few short years that, if we think outside the box, we can normally find a way to meet their needs. Ways I have seen this achieved by families is by living more simply or what is known as ‘downshifting’. This can include downsizing, moving to a cheaper area, taking a mortgage-break or reduction, changing work arrangements (part-time, work-from-home, job-share, bring baby to work), setting up a family business, and reducing outgoings considerably (no holidays, car, expensive clothes etc). And remember these 'sacrifices' are only for a few years and are made to insure the wellbeing of our children at a time when they need us most.

What if I want to work?

We all have needs as mothers and they shouldn’t be ignored. Our needs don’t have to be at the expense of our child though. If our work is important to us and fulfils us and is not something we can live without during those crucial early years, we could find a way to fulfil that need that takes us away from our child for the shortest amount of time possible.

Suggestions for working mothers:

  • Bring your child to work with you if you can. This will make breastfeeding easier and minimise your child’s separation from you. You may also be able to carry your baby in a sling while you work.
  • Make sure your child is left with a trusted person that he/she is very attached to and enjoys being with.
  • Continue breastfeeding by expressing breast milk and breastfeeding before you leave and on your return to encourage attachment. Consider having your child brought to you at breaks and lunchtime to breastfeed.
  • The person who cares for your baby while you are working may be able to bring your child to visit you during the day (maybe at lunchtime). This can create an opportunity for breastfeeding and a time to re-connect and play with your child.
  • Consider changing the nature and schedule of your work to make it more child-friendly. For example, start your own business from home, or work more flexibly around your child's needs (such as when they are asleep).
  • Consider living off one income or an income derived from both parents working part-time.


Separation anxiety is a normal reaction young children have to an abnormal situation: separation from their parents. One way to minimise the impact this ‘disorder’ has on our child is quite simple; remain as close and attached as we possibly can for as long as we can, and be open to the myriad of ways we can achieve this.

Further reading

Attachment and progressive parenting advice:
Attachment Parenting Australia:
Australian Breastfeeding Association:
Australian Association for Infant Mental Health (AAIMH):
Dr Sears, Attachment Parenting:


© Chaley-Ann Scott
The Shepherdess: A Guide to Mothering without Control

“A gender-equal society would be one where the word ‘gender’ does not exist: where everyone can be themselves.”*

I’ve always been aware of gender conditioning and actively tried to combat any lingering prejudices or stereotypes in my own parenting, even down to encouraging dolls with my boys when they were little. It’s great to read people writing about gender issues they’re experiencing with their kids. For too long these subjects have been discouraged or silenced. I’d love to publish some more creative writing on this topic, especially if you are struggling with a child who actively tries to move away from gender normative preferences. A society where everyone can be themselves thanks Gloria for those aspirational words.

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* Gloria Steinem