Helping Your Infant or Toddler Cope with Loss

No matter how young someone is, they will grieve the loss of someone close. Even your infant or toddler will experience a sense of loss when a person who has been around them frequently is suddenly gone. It can feel challenging to try to comfort a baby who is grieving when they cannot understand the concept of death. As adults, we often depend upon language to explain, clarify and heal during times of loss. With infants and toddlers, helping them cope with grief and loss will look different.

Developmental Understanding

Infants and toddlers do not understand death or have the words to explain what they are thinking and feeling. However, they are aware of the absence of a loved one. They will notice changes in routine, and experience stress due to the changes in the emotional atmosphere of the home, their caregivers and siblings.

Emotions and Behaviors

Infants and toddlers are likely to experience feelings of longing and anxiety due to sudden change and loss. They will miss the physical contact, sight, sound and smell of the person who has died or left. Children at this age may experience a fear of abandonment by other loved ones. These emotions may lead to behavioral changes, such as frequent crying, rocking, sucking, biting or thrashing when held. Infants and toddlers are more prone to becoming ill when they experience stress, especially because sleeplessness is common, and wears down the body’s immune system. Changes in eating patterns and digestion problems are also common.

How to Provide Support

The best thing you can do to help and infant or toddler cope with grief is to increase your physical contact with him or her; cuddling and hugs are reassuring to a baby’s sense of safety and security, thus deterring fears of abandonment and anxiety. Maintaining routines to the best of your ability is also important, especially when it comes to meeting your child’s immediate needs, such as feeding and sleep patterns. Be gentle and patient with behavioral changes, offering physical affection as a source of comfort and redirection. While you do not want to lose control of your emotions in front of your baby and cause undue stress, it is okay to include your child in your own grieving process occasionally, because it enhances understanding of emotions, builds the capacity for empathy, and assists in developing tolerance of intense difficult emotions.



About Dr. Chaitra Wirta-Leiker

Dr. Chaitra Wirta-Leiker is an adoptee, adoptive parent, and psychologist who provides mental health support focused on adoption, trauma, and racial identity work. She is the author of the "Adoptees Like Me" book series.