When your child experiences separation anxiety it’s that natural parental instinct to do everything in our power to ease it. It’s not fun seeing your little one under such distress!

In this blog post I’ll be covering my top tips for handling separation anxiety as a means to help maintain your child’s sleep routines so that if there is disruption in the sleep department you feel equipped with the tools for managing it.

When Does Separation Anxiety Kick In?

With babies constantly developing, separation anxiety begins around 6-9 months which then peaks again at around 15-18 months. The reason for this is that some time around 6 months the framework for human connection is beginning to be understood. This is the concept of object permanence – they realize an object (aka you!) still exists even when they can’t see it. This is why peek-a-boo is such a riveting game for them starting around this age!

But this isn’t the only time separation anxiety shows up for a baby or toddler. It is often triggered by any of the following, or often as I call it, a perfect storm of a few of these occurrences at the same time:

  • Sleep regressions – a sleep regression typically lasts 2-6 weeks
  • Starting new childcare, daycare or switching to a new caregiver or daycare
  • When a parent returns to work or work hours/shifts change
  • Moving to a new home or traveling to a new location/environment
  • Teething – this typically lasts 2-3 days per tooth eruption
  • Illness 
  • Schedule irregularity, which can make toddlers especially feel uncertain

So What Do I Do?

When our little ones are experiencing separation anxiety, we can sometimes unintentionally make things heightened or prolonged, so we need to resist the temptation to rescue them at the slightest sign of them feeling this emotion and stress. The act of rescuing often leads to stopping the crying at any cost which in the long run is likely to cause your child more uncertainty as they realize there is now a change in their sleep patterns and routines. 

Top Tips for Managing Your Child’s Separation Anxiety:

  1. Practice a short but special way to say goodbye to make that send off more connecting.  This is great for toddlers too as you can use this throughout the day, even going to the bathroom!
  2. Prep them & Be Predictable. Your goodbye send off should be short and consistent. Before the goodbye prep them that it is coming, remind them what you will say and then follow through. You build their trust this way since they hear you say what it coming and then they consistently see the follow through, despite their reaction. The longer or more complex the goodbye is, the greater chance you risk communicating to them that YOU are having trouble or anxiety around separating from them. If you, their trustworthy pilot, is doubting this separation, then it ends up just fueling their doubts even more. 
  3. Communicate Timing. Be honest and let them know when they will see you again. They don’t have a great concept of time but this is all about that trust building and maintenance. So this could be, “I’ll see you in the morning and give you a great big hug!” or “I’ll come back before lunch time.” And depending on your child’s age, you can even add where you will be so they can better visualize your presence. 
  4. Associate their room with feelings other than just separation. Do you use your child’s room JUST for sleep? Are you only basically in there with them for their nap and bedtime routines? If so, when your child is experiencing separation anxiety their room starts to be connected to just darkness and separation. Amp up the intentional one-on-one time in your child’s room! Making sure they continue to recognize their surroundings in there and associate their sleep space with love and comfort!
  5. Practice games involving separation. My favorites are peek a boo with little ones – you can hide under a blanket or keep peeping out from behind their door. Or hide and seek for older children. Communicate how proud you are of them for staying calm while they were looking for you! Remind them you will always be there for them! 

And remember, just because you know they are going through this does not mean you have to shield them from experiencing this emotion! So still continue that planned drop-off at grandma’s house or that trip to a totally new environment!

How Do I Handle The Sleep Disruptions?

Even while practicing those top tips for managing separation anxiety, you may notice your baby or toddler is still having trouble falling asleep for bedtime, naps or is waking up during the night wanting you.

Here’s what you can do:

  1. Stick to your soothing/sleep training approach – have confidence, calmness and consistency! 
  2. Support, but don’t introduce new sleep associations you don’t want or have worked hard to eliminate. Remember, that is like a band-aid. It’s going to temporarily work but then have to be eventually removed!
  3. Make sure you have a calming, predictable routine prior to nap time and bedtime that they truly enjoy. You can even add an extra book or song to fill up that need for more intentional time with you. See if you can make them laugh or giggle during the routine to release that love hormone! 
  4. Be near when they need you keep their room a comforting space and spend more intentional time in there. You may need to stay closer to them when they are falling asleep but that is something you can wean back from over the course of a few weeks!

Dealing with separation anxiety is not a quick fix! Your child can’t just turn off those feelings and you can’t make them sleep; however, you can still offer clear boundaries and expectations around nap time and bedtime and continuously show them you believe in them and love them!  How long separation anxiety lasts can vary, depending on your child’s age, temperament and how a parent responds. Keep in mind that your little one’s unwillingness to leave you is a good sign that healthy attachments have developed between the two of you – reframing it this way can help you cope with this too! Eventually, your child will be able to remember that you always return after you leave, and that will be comfort enough while you’re gone.

Need More Support?

Do you need more specific advice and sleep training tips for handling your child’s sleep disruptions? Take a look at our packages and guides! Here at The Sleepyhead Coach we provide you with science-based, age-appropriate sleep solutions that work for your child’s unique needs without compromising your parenting philosophies. You get your ME time back and can wake up in the morning only needing just one cup of coffee to get through the day!