When Separation Anxiety Hits

The struggle for parents with babies and toddlers dealing with separation anxiety is real!  A formerly great sleeper can turn into an anxious little one who needs constant reassurance, making leaving for the day, or even just a break for the bathroom, spiked with anxiety – for you AND your baby. The anxiety can be even worse at nap and bedtime. Where you once had a pleasant, peaceful routine, you now have lots of tears and (in older children) pleading and excuse-making.

First of all, what is Separation Anxiety?

It’s good to be reminded that this phase is a normal developmental milestone and part of a secure attachment. Separation anxiety usually starts around 9 months old and can last all the way through 18 months. It may pop up again in the older toddler years, too, as children start leaving for preschool or daycare and having new fears of the dark or nightmares. It coincides with the development of object permanence  and with the baby’s newly expanding awareness of the wide-wide world outside of their own little bubble.

The main symptoms are:

  • Crying upon separation from parent or caregiver

  • Anxiously clinging to parent throughout the day

  • Fighting bedtime or regularly waking up at night looking for reassurance

  • Refusing to go to sleep without a parent present

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As loving parents, we may be tempted to never leave our child to save them from the stress of it, fearing we may damage our attachment with them. After all, we care deeply about forming and maintaining a secure attachment to our child, and the tears and tantrums surrounding separation can make us feel like we are going the wrong direction. But the truth about attachment is very reassuring. In this super helpful article that looks at all the nuanced studies surrounding secure attachment, parents are reassured that a secure attachment is built and maintained NOT by being present 100% of the time or immediately meeting every request and need (an impossible task anyways!), but by repairing and comforting and continuing to return.

However, this doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be sensitive to the particular needs of our child during this developmental stage. The good news is, there are helpful tips and practices that will guide you through this time and help you come out the other side with an even more secure attachment!

1)     Know that this is a normal developmental phase. The tears don’t indicate trauma or undue amounts of stress for your child, and it certainly doesn’t mean you’re doing anything wrong as a parent. This too, really shall pass!

secure attachment is built and maintained NOT by being present 100% of the time or immediately meeting every request and need (an impossible task anyways!), but by repairing and comforting and continuing to return.
— lindsey at sleep little lamb

2)     Help reinforce object permanence. Part of what is going on developmentally for your baby during separation anxiety is the learning of the concept of object permanence. Are you really still there even when they can’t see you? Will you really return? Playing peek-a-boo, either between yourself and your child or with an object like a ball or their favorite toy, can help make separation seem more fun and also reinforce the concept that you will always return.  You can even do this by putting them in their crib during non-nap or bedtimes and playing a fun game of peekaboo with you outside the door.

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3)     Stay calm and confident! Research shows that a mother’s level of anxiety during separation is directly linked to the child’s level of anxiety. The more you can exude confidence and calm to your child during the emotional moments, the more they will model your behavior and trust that everything really is ok. So, instead of prolonging bedtime with lots of extra reassurance or starting undesirable and unsustainable habits like co-sleeping or laying with them until they fall asleep (which may give the wrong message that everything really isn’t ok!),  stick with your normal plan as much as possible. Be positive, firm, and loving, and then stick with your boundaries. This consistency will give them confidence.

4)     Choose a gentle sleep training method. If bedtime, naptime, or overnight sleep has become a huge battle, choose an appropriate sleep training method to get back on track. You may need to try a different method than what you’ve used before. If your baby or toddler is really in the thick of separation anxiety, then choosing a fast, abrupt sleep training method could really exasperate those symptoms. The good news is, there are other options! I work with my clients to find the best solution for your child’s developmental phase, temperament, and your personal parenting style. A gradual method or in-the-room method will often be the best option during this stage because you can put necessary boundaries around sleep again, while also providing reassurance. Not sure the best option? Let’s chat!

5)     Introduce a transitional or comfort object. If your child doesn’t have one already, now is a great time to introduce a lovey or comfort item (check with your pediatrician if your child is under 1.) Having something physical to hold on to can be a great comfort whether for bedtime, naptime, or going off to daycare. I like these and these.

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6)     Make sure your child’s physical needs are met. If your child is hungry or overtired, the emotions surrounding separation will likely be even more pronounced. This is why having a healthy, age-appropriate sleep plan are especially critical during this time! Try to plan for separations to happen (like with a new babysitter or date at Grandma’s) AFTER a good nap and meal.

7)     Know when to seek professional help. There is a line where a child can cross over from normal separation anxiety to a full-blown anxiety disorder called Separation Anxiety Disorder (SAD). This happens when a child does not grow out of separation anxiety and where the fear of being left interferes with daily life. If your child is over 5 years old and experiencing symptoms such as extreme fear and panic around separation from a parent, nightmares about being separated, and even physical symptoms such as tummy aches and bed-wetting, seek professional help.

What helped you and your child through separation anxiety?