Separation Anxiety and Sleep.

From the age of around 6 months, Separation Anxiety often becomes a major disruptor to a little one’s sleep. Some babies may start to resist bedtime, others may cry or call out in the night until Mum or Dad enters the room. Whilst this can be a challenging time for all involved, it’s a normal part of your little one’s emotional development and most will have grown out of it by the age of 3 years. With a potential 2.5 years of Separation Anxiety to manage, I thought it would be useful to provide you with my top tips for handling this tricky time, as well as minimising its impact on your little one’s sleep… 

Unfortunately, sleep problems aren’t isolated to the first few months of a baby’s life. In fact, it’s very common for issues to extend and evolve in the second half of their first year and beyond. Developmental phases, illness, teething and changes such as new childcare settings, siblings or homes can all impact your little one’s sleep. So, how do you know if it’s Separation Anxiety wreaking havoc and not a tooth waiting to break through the gum? 

  • New or increased clinginess; 
  • Tensing up or crying around unfamiliar people;
  • Resistance to being looked after by familiar friends or family;
  • Crying when you leave the room;
  • Reluctance to being put to bed during the day or night;
  • Wanting parent(s) to stay with them as they fall asleep;
  • From 2 years, nightmares involving separation or being alone. 

It’s worth keeping in mind the reason why Separation Anxiety happens – if only to keep you sane and empathetic during this challenging period. From around the age of 6 months, babies start to realise how dependent they are on you. As a result, they start to feel less safe when you’re not there. They also become progressively more aware of their surroundings, so unfamiliar settings or situations can make them feel scared or insecure. Furthermore, a sense of object permanence is present, meaning they now understand that something continues to exist even when out of sight. So, when you’re no longer visible to your little one, they think that you are gone forever. This explains that meltdown when you pop to the kitchen to grab your cup of tea! 

With the above in mind, your focus should very much be on making your little one feel secure and confident with being alone and/or trust that while you may be out of sight, you will always return. In order to do this, you will need to be mindful of your behaviour, body language and reactions both during the day and at night. Many parents unintentionally reinforce Separation Anxiety with the reaction they give to any crying etc. associated with you leaving – be it for 10 seconds to grab that cuppa or an entire weekend. Your baby has an abundance of mirror neurones that absorb emotions from the people around them. It is, therefore, important to approach this phase with confidence and calm, so that your baby feels positive too. Your little one is very sensitive to your physical and emotional state. You must convey to them that there is nothing to be scared of and that you will be back soon, until they have enough ‘data’ to trust this to be true. 

Whilst you wait for this phase to pass, there are a number of things you can do during the day and night to help them deal with these new fears…

  • Play peekaboo with younger babies and hide & seek with toddlers. Both these games help your little one understand (in a fun way) that when you leave, you will always return; 
  • Encourage independence and exploration when appropriate – e.g. in a play park or even interacting with a new toy; 
  • At home (and when safe to do so), practice leaving the room for short periods of time. Warn your little one that you will be leaving, then go and come back; 
  • Slowly build up the amount of time you spend away from your baby. Start off with a quick trip to the supermarket rather than going straight to a weekend away; 
  • Don’t draw out your goodbyes. Make them short and sweet. Exude confidence and calm;
  • For toddlers, you can use age appropriate language to help them understand when you’ll be back – e.g. ‘at lunch time’ rather than ‘midday’. You could even use a visual chart to help them.
  • A consistent bedtime routine will help your little one feel safe and secure. The same steps in the same order every night;
  • Don’t let specific steps in your bedtime routine get too drawn out. Stick to your normal timings or you could be singing 5 Twinkle Twinkles for many years;
  • From 1 year, introduce a comforter that your little one can use at bedtime and for naps. You could even carry it around with you for a day or so beforehand so it smells like you; 
  • If your little one is struggling to go to sleep or resettle in the night, reassure them that you are close by but be careful not to do the job of putting them all the way to sleep. Support rather than do the hard work. 

While Separation Anxiety has the potential to effect your little one’s sleep between 6 months and 3 years, there are ways of minimising its effect to ensure you and your baby get the sleep you need for your physical, mental and emotional wellbeing. There will be peaks and troughs but, regardless of where you’re at, try to stay consistent, confident and calm – and know, it’s just a phase, and this too shall pass. 

If you’re struggling with your little one’s sleep and need some more support, get in touch and book your free Discovery Call with me. I’d love to hear from you.