My daughter was not quite 2-and-a-half when I left her in child care for the first time. The preschool I sent her to was small, intimate, and very familiar since we'd attended the mommy-baby playgroup it offered. Nevertheless, I was apprehensive to leave her. At the start, she felt quite the opposite. She loved her school, her teachers, and her friends. Then one day, for what seemed to be no reason at all, she didn't want me to leave.
My formerly independent little girl cried and climbed up onto my lap, burying her head in my sweater and holding on as tight as she could. "I don't want you to go," she repeated. I sat for a while, hoping she'd calm down or get distracted by some fun activity. No such luck. The teachers and I decided that the best thing for me to do was just go, so I did. I knew my daughter was safe in their hands, and I had a feeling (which they confirmed to be correct) that she'd move on within a minute of my departure.
Still, I worried. This pattern continued for a while, and I wondered if it meant something was wrong. Was my toddler too clingy, or was this a normal phase? I reached out to the experts to understand.
Is My Toddler Too Clingy?
"From what we know about child development, some clinginess in toddlers is normal," Amy Nasamran, licensed child psychologist and founder of Atlas Psychology, told POPSUGAR. "The clinginess will peak around 18 months, and it should then start to decline." You'll notice your toddler crying, worrying, and tantrum-ing when you first leave, said child therapist Julia M. Chamberlain, MS, INHC, of Massachusetts. "However, if this continues for a duration longer than 30 minutes, this is a sign that the child is too clingy," she continued.
If the clinginess doesn't get better after that warmup period, there could be a problem. "Toddlers tend to become less clingy as they adjust and get comfortable in a new situation," Dr. Nasamran said. "They will explore their environment independently and check back in with the parent from time to time. If your toddler is clinging to you throughout an entire event, they may not be adjusting as well as we expect." She also noted that clinginess in familiar environments, like clinging to a parent while at home, is not normal toddler behavior. "If your toddler cries when you leave the room or asks repetitive questions about where you're going at home, these may be signs for something more than normal levels of toddler clinginess."
Toddlers who suffer from extreme separation anxiety sometimes show it through other behaviors, especially at night. If your toddler refuses to sleep alone for over a month on end or consistently wets the bed, Chamberlain said these may be signs that they are struggling with anxiety. Dr. Nasamran concurred, also listing nightmares as possibly related to daytime separation issues.
Both professionals noted that frequent stomachaches may be related to anxiety in toddlers. "Physical symptoms like stomachaches or headaches in toddlers when separated from a parent may be serious signs of stress beyond just clinginess," Dr. Nasamran said. Chamberlain agreed, noting, "Sometimes, physical symptoms are actually a somatic presentation of anxiety. Many children will report belly pain, body tension, and muscle aches when they are experiencing feelings of anxiousness."
How Can I Help My Toddler Cope With Separation Anxiety?
Chamberlain suggested normalizing separation by discussing, previewing, and practicing with your toddler to help the adjustment feel more manageable. "Separation can be practiced in shorter increments and then increased to longer increments," she said. Sticking to a routine is also helpful. "Keeping consistent expectations and consequences is helpful in promoting a sense of normalcy and safety during separation," Chamberlain explained.
Reassurance that you will return and a clear goodbye (without lingering) will also help build trust and calm separation anxiety, according to Dr. Nasamran, but some children need a little more support. "If your toddler clinging to you prevents them from doing daily life activities like playing with others or going to day care, consulting with a professional may be helpful," she said.