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This past weekend, my wife went on a retreat while I stayed home with our 1-year-old twins. Since they were sleeping when she left, there was no separation anxiety. The next morning, I changed them as usual, but instead of taking them to our bedroom where my wife normally feeds them, I took them downstairs for milk in their highchairs. After that a brief moment of agitation, they went through the rest of the day without seeming to notice my wife was missing. In fact, they didn't much notice anything different unless there was some change to their schedule; who was taking care of them didn't seem to have any noticeable impact on their behavior or attitude.

When my wife returned home, they obviously recognized that she was gone. When we take them to nursery at church, they notice when we leave. But as far as I can tell, they don't miss us when we are gone. It got me thinking: when do children first become aware of the absence of someone important to them? Are there any studies on when children might start missing a parent who is no longer around?

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My father died when I was about 2 1/2 years old, and mother says that after about a week of my going to his (wheel) chair and not finding him, I began wander from room to room, calling for him, and then crying. She had to send me for grief counseling. –  Jax Mar 14 at 23:33
    
@Jax Thank you for that deeply moving data point. I think that sets a hard upper limit to the age. –  Jon Ericson Mar 15 at 0:08
    
@ Jon Ericson you're welcome. I think it's important to mention that I spent quite a bit of time with my father before he passed; this fact supports Karl Bielefeldt's answer below which takes the amount of time/involvement a parent spends/has with the child into account. I agree that this is an important factor. –  Jax Mar 15 at 0:43

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I'd say a certain amount depends on how much time the parent spends in the same room as the child, and how much the other parent helps out. The absence of a single mother who cosleeps in a studio apartment would be noticed a lot earlier than a couple in a large house who shares child care responsibilities relatively fairly.

My children each have their own bedrooms. My wife is a stay at home mom, but I help out roughly 50-50 with the kids after work and on weekends. My kids started noticed a parent's extended absence somewhere between ages 3 and 4.

Our four year-old feels the loss of absence deeply. Her mother and sister had to spend quite a bit of time in the hospital over the last several months. When she was two, she really only was sad when seeing us leave, and as you mentioned, when her routine was disrupted.

My daughter who is 9, but approximately 3 years old mentally due to her cerebral palsy, doesn't grasp the concept. She thinks mom is in her room, even if she's been gone for a few days. Likewise, she thinks I'm at work and will be home at dinner time, although even during work hours she calls out for me on the off chance I might be in the next room. Partly with her, though, it's because people are often in parts of the house where her wheelchair can't go, so she has more trouble keeping track of people's comings and goings.

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