Separation anxiety begins to develop at around 6-8 months old, when babies gain an understanding of object permanence - that is, that things continue to exist when they cannot be seen. It typically peaks at around 14-18 months and usually goes away gradually throughout early childhood.
Separation anxiety is a normal part of your child's development and a sign of secure attachment. Babies with separation anxiety worry that a parent will leave and not return. They now realise that they are not attached to you - the person they depend on for care, safety and comfort. Separation anxiety can be upsetting for parents too; it can cause a lot of #mumguilt, especially when returning to work. It can also impact naps and bedtime as sleep can be viewed by your baby as a long separation from you.
How will you know if your baby or toddler is dealing with separation anxiety? Well if you are reading this, you probably already know! Your little one may cling to you (especially in new situations or environments or when around unfamiliar people), not want to be put down, cry or protest when you walk into the next room, refuse to go to sleep without a parent nearby and just be generally anxious and upset when a parent leaves their sight.
So what can you do?
1. Play games
Games like ‘peekaboo’ and ‘hide & seek’ help reinforce object permanence and encourage social and emotional development.
2. Read books
Reading books and creating made-up stories that relate to separation and fears can assist with developing a healthy mindset, and present a message in a way that appeals to your little one.
3. Role play
Role play what will happen when you leave. Get the dolls and stuffed animals involved! Reverse the roles and get your child to play the role of you. Make it fun!
4. Have special bonding time
Make special one-on-one time a part of your day. This can be especially beneficial leading up to naps and bedtime, when separation anxiety is often at its worst.
5. Use a transitional object
Something that your child is attached to such as a comforter or lovey is a great tool for providing comfort and connection, especially during times of separation. It is also a beautiful positive sleep association. If your child has a comforter, include it in daily activities and in your wind-down routine.
*please note that Red Nose states that soft toys including transitional objects should not be placed in the sleeping environment of an infant under 7 months of age.*
6. Start small
Practice with brief separations and reunions so your child can get used to feeling at ease when away from you. Make sure these are positive experiences. This could be as simple as you ducking out for 10 minutes, then 20 minutes, then 30 minutes...and so on. If you avoid separations altogether, your child won't have a chance to learn that there is nothing to fear and that you always return!
7. Spend time together in new places
If you are leaving your child in a new environment such as child care or at a friend or relative's house, spend time together there before the separation. They are likely to be less anxious if the environment feels familiar before you leave.
8. Always say goodbye
It can be tempting to sneak away to avoid the tears but saying goodbye develops trust and helps build your child's confidence and understanding that you will return. When you say goodbye, don't drag it out too long as this can prolong their anxiety, and try not to be overly emotional yourself as children often pick up on these emotions.
9. Create a goodbye ritual
Turn your goodbye into a fun ritual! Perform the same sequence of events every time you have to say goodbye - children love consistency and routine. This will look different depending on the age of your little one. You could hand them their comforter and sing a goodbye song, give a high five and a kiss on both cheeks, a fist bump and a squishy cuddle - whatever it is, make it a special ritual that helps to ease emotionally loaded goodbyes.
10. Positive attention
Avoid criticising or being negative about your child’s emotions. Don't downplay how they are feeling about the separation. Instead, give them lots of positive attention and praise for being brave about being away from you.
Separation anxiety will ebb and flow throughout infancy and early childhood. You may find that your baby or toddler’s sleep is disrupted during times of intense separation anxiety. Try to remain consistent with your good sleep habits, implement some of the strategies above & know that it is a normal part of growing up - and it will pass!
Need some help with your baby or toddler's sleep? Reach out for a complimentary 15 minute consultation to find out how I can help you, and take a look at my gentle and affordable sleep consultation packages.
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