Why Babies Get Clingy—And How to Cope
October 25, 2021
Having baby glued to your side all day can get tough—just as tough as watching them cry every time you leave the room. The struggle is far from fun, but rest assured that clinginess in babies is perfectly normal and a pivotal part of their development. This separation anxiety happens when baby starts to realize you’re the best at taking care of them. Naturally, they want to keep you close by. Baby will grow out of the phase eventually, but until that happens, you may be wondering how to cope with the clinginess. Keep reading to learn when and why babies get clingy, plus expert tips on how to handle it.
There’s a wide window for when babies may begin to exhibit clinginess, experts say. Some parents might start to notice their babies being extra-attached to them as early as 6 months old or as late as 18 to 20 months old. During this developmental period, babies are learning to take in their environment and make sure someone is there to take care of them, says Cindy Hovington, PhD, founder of Curious Neuron, a science-backed parenting consultancy. This is an important step to helping baby build an attachment with their caregiver, she explains.
Much of their clinginess has to do with baby developing object permanence, the idea that something exists even when you cannot see it, says pediatrician Whitney Casares, MD, author of The New Baby Blueprint: Winning at Parenting Without Losing Yourself. Infants can typically grasp this concept starting between 4 and 8 months old—and separation anxiety, which is when baby feels unsettled by your absence—can set in soon after, around 9 months of age (although some kids don’t show signs of separation anxiety until later, around 18 months).
While separation anxiety plays a big role in baby’s attachment, Casares says children can also get clingy when they’re dealing with stress, uncertainty, change or are tired or hungry. After all, when your little one is feeling unsettled, it makes sense they turn to you, their caregiver, for comfort.
Clinginess can last for a while, but your tot should have an easier time by the time they turn 2, Hovington says, adding that most kids fully outgrow it by 3 years old.
It can be challenging when you’ve got a million things to do and all baby wants is to be in your arms—but clinginess isn’t a bad thing, and experts advise parents to avoid labeling their children as shy or needy. “There is a lot of misinformation around this topic, as if it [means] we have failed our child by making them too dependent on us,” Hovington says. “Pushing a baby away to be in the arms of a family member rather than our arms is not necessarily going to help them move past this stage. If you need a moment to yourself, then yes, go for it! However, contrary to popular belief, responding to their cries and holding them during this separation phase will not make them more clingy.”
Until your child has outgrown this phase, how you respond to their clinginess is crucial to their development, as it helps inform their social and emotional skills, Hovington explains. Of course, you won’t harm your child if you don’t immediately scoop them up because you need to, say, use the bathroom or answer the front door, she says, but acknowledging baby’s needs helps strengthen your bond. Below, some ways you and baby can both cope with the clinginess:
-Keep your child close and your hands free. Parents notoriously have too much to do at all times, and they can’t get it all done if baby never wants to be put down. One solution is to embrace babywearing. “I used baby carriers to cook while being with baby” Hovington says, adding that as her kids aged, she looked for other creative solutions. “Around the age of 15 months, I included my children during meal prep. I purchased a toddler knife and would give them soft foods to cut (boiled eggs, strips of cucumbers, tomatoes or cheese) while I was cooking.”
-Provide a distraction. If you have to leave baby with another caregiver, make sure your little one is well-rested and fed beforehand to lessen the clinginess, Casares says. Make your goodbyes quick and provide baby with a distraction, like a soft toy or blanket, so they’re not hysterical as you slip away.
-Let baby see and hear you. If baby wants to be with you all day, have them play somewhere you can see them and talk to them (for example, set up in a nearby playard or activity center). “They want to feel seen and soothed by you,” Hovington says. “As long as you keep speaking with them or going to see them as they play, it can ease the transition from being in your arms to being a little further away from you.”
-Take steps back during daily playtime. “There is a lot of learning that happens in those moments when they feel safe and see you stepping back,” Hovington explains. Doing this every day can help baby feel more comfortable being away from you.
-Keep your promises. One of the best ways to help ease baby’s clinginess? Letting them know they can count on you to come back when you say you will. “If you promise your child you’ll return after a set amount of time, keep true to your word,” Casares says. This may mean leaving some errands for next time, but it will help ease baby’s attachment.
-Remember this is a phase. “As a mom of three kids, each two years apart, I know that this phase is hard,” Hovington says. But remember, this too shall pass, and baby will eventually grow out of it. You may even miss it once baby is all grown up!
About the experts:
Whitney Casares, MD, MPH, FAAP, is a pediatrician based in Portland, Oregon. She is also the author of The New Baby Blueprint: Winning at Parenting Without Losing Yourself. Casares obtained her medical degree from the University of Vermont and completed her pediatrics residency at Stanford University. She also holds a Master of Public Health in maternal and child health from the University of California, Berkeley.
Cindy Hovington, PhD, is the founder of Curious Neuron, a science-backed parenting consultancy and podcast that aims to make the science around childhood development more accessible and digestible for parents. She obtained her Master’s degree from Queen’s University and Doctorate in neuroscience from McGill University, both located in Canada.