Your baby or toddler may start showing some separation anxiety at bedtime, here are simple research backed solutions.
The struggle for parents with babies and toddlers dealing with separation anxiety at bedtime is real.
You want to put your little one down to sleep and there is panic. Tears. Weeping and gnashing of teeth. You think… is it a tantrum? Is it stalling?
Or are they actually frightened?
The separation angst may come at any time, but can be worse at nap and bedtime. Where you once had a pleasant, peaceful routine, you now have lots of tears in little ones.
And pleading and excuse-making in older kids.
What you’re gonna learn…
What does separation anxiety look like for babies and toddlers?
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.
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 / night terrors.
- 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. We fear 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 a study (linked in sources) looking at nuanced studies surrounding secure attachment, parents can be reassured.
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 anyway). Rather, it is forged 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. In some cases a drastic life change may be responsible (moving, death, divorce, starting preschool, etc.).
But if nothing has changed, it’s likely just developmental.
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 anyway). rnrnRather, it’s forged by repairing and comforting and continuing to return.
2) Help reinforce object permanence.
Part of what is going on developmentally for your baby or toddler 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.
This is why sneaking out does not help. In fact, it can reinforce anxiety at separation. Don’t pretend you won’t leave, then leave. This is, indirectly, dishonest.
3) Stay calm, confident, and keep your routine
Research shows that a mother’s level of anxiety during separation is directly linked to the child’s level of anxiety.
This makes sense.
If your babe cries, then you have all sorts of Fight-or-flight reactions and think…
“Making my child sleep is traumatizing. I cannot traumatize. In fact, I am traumatized thinking I am causing trauma. I will do whatever it takes.“
This sends a message to the child that THEY WERE RIGHT to worry because… see… mom is worried too!!!
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, while you’ll be tempted to prolong bedtime with lots of extra reassurance, don’t. And don’t start 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 okay).
Stick with your normal bedtime routine as much as possible. Be positive, firm, and loving, and then stick with your boundaries. This consistency will give them confidence.
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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. My sleep class will help you 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.
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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.)
Keep a night light on, the closet light on with the doors shut, etc. to create some light for those scared of the dark. It may create some shadows which can send your child down a whole other path, ha, but is worth considering.
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 daily routine are are especially critical during this time. Try to plan for separations to happen (like with a new babysitter or date at nana’s) AFTER a good nap and meal.
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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.
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