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Sleep & Separation Anxiety in Babies and Toddlers

separation anxiety in babies and toddlers

Separation anxiety in babies and toddlers can be intense. Your normally happy, (somewhat) adaptable child may start to act dramatically differently and have some very strong responses to being away from you.  It can look like:

  • Clinging and crying when it is time to be apart
  • Crying when you are out of sight
  • Fearful of strangers or even people your child is close to like grandparents
  • Freaking out going into the crib
  • Waking in the middle of the night upset

If you are in the middle of this or you’ve been through it in the past, you know how hard it is to see your little one upset!

In today’s article, we are going to explore separation anxiety and sleep. We’ll look at typical timeframes, how it affects sleep and give you some tips on how to cope.

Separation anxiety in babies and toddlers is normal

You may be asking yourself “Did I do something? Did something happen to my little one?” Separation anxiety in babies and toddlers is a normal part of development and actually a really good sign.  It means that you are building a strong base of attachment with your little one! 

Peaks of separation anxiety in babies and toddlers

Separation anxiety will come and go throughout early childhood. Usually in the second year, separation anxiety becomes less frequent. Peaks of separation anxiety happen around:

  • 7-8 months
  • 12 months
  • 18 months
  • 2 years

These are normal timeframes but it is common for children to experience separation anxiety outside of these timeframes as well. 

Interestingly, sleep regressions happen around the same timeframes as the peaks of separation anxiety. Whenever children are going through major things developmentally there is usually a regression in sleep. To learn more about what’s going on developmentally, check out our posts on the sleep regressions.

Healthy sleep habits derailed

When our little ones are upset, our natural reaction as parents is to comfort our children, no matter what.  When separation anxiety is in full swing, this oftentimes results in throwing our routines out the window. We adopt new habits or going back to old sleep habits that we have already broken to get our little ones to sleep. These habits, also known as sleep associations, can be hard to break.

Also when our babies and toddlers are boycotting bedtime and naps and waking up throughout the night, it causes them to quickly build a sleep debt.  Overtired kiddos have difficulty settling into sleep, night wakings, restless sleep and early morning wake ups.

New Habits + Overtired = A New Pattern

Separation anxiety comes and goes in early childhood. We don’t want to get into a new pattern. Separation anxiety will be long gone and you’ll still be doing that habit because your child think that they need you to do that so they can sleep.

So here’s what you can do instead…

How to handle separation anxiety in your baby or toddler at naptime and in the night

Stay Calm

When our children are having loud emotional responses / tantrums, it can put us into reactionary mode.  I don’t know about you, but when I’m reacting instead of consciously making decisions, I don’t always make my best parenting choices. If you react really strongly to your child’s emotions, it can escalate the emotion instead of calming your little one down. If you look worried or anxious, you are reinforcing for your little one that there is a reason to be afraid. Once you’ve identified it is separation anxiety, stay calm even when your little one is upset.

Put It in Perspective

If your little one was really upset when dropping them off at daycare, would you call out of work until the separation anxiety passed?  Probably not. If you had a date night planned and your child was upset when you were leaving, would you skip the date and send the babysitter home? Probably not. When you look at it from that perspective, you want to make similar choices at bedtime and in the middle of the night. Remember, your little one is in a safe and loving environment and going through a normal developmental process.

Keep Your Routine

Routine and structure make children feel safe. This means that your routines are even more important when your child is going through a peak of separation anxiety.  When they are already feeling anxiety, we don’t want to amplify that by changing up the routine and confusing them about what to expect.

Provide Comfort, Yet Stay Consistent

If your little one is upset at naptime or screaming in the middle of the night, you can definitely provide comfort.  This helps reassure your little one that you are nearby. Plus you’ll feel better too!  One thing to keep in mind is that you want this to be very boring and short. Don’t redo the bedtime routine or do lot of engagement / stimulating.  When the comforting is done, leave the room while your little one is awake. Which is a perfect lead in to our next tip.

Stay Consistent

If you normally put your baby down awake in the crib, when a peak of separation anxiety hits, they may not think that is a great idea. We don’t want to change up everything that we normally do because they want us to stay with them. We don’t want to go into survival mode and bring in crutches, like bottles, rocking to sleep or bringing your little one into bed with you.  Like many things in parenting, we don’t make choices solely about what our children want. I love the expression ‘you can always have a say, but it doesn’t mean you get your way.” As parents, it is our job to meet their needs and the need for healthy sleep is non-negotiable.

Don’t Sneak Off

Avoid sneaking away because you don’t want your child to learn that they can’t look away from you without you sneaking out of the room. This is important at bedtime, naptime and when dropping your little one off at daycare or a grandparent’s house. By having a loving, but brief goodbye and then returning at your normal time, you are teaching your little one that you always come back.

Communicate

For toddlers who are communicating that they don’t want you to leave, you can acknowledge that and validate the way that they are feeling.  Your little one may still be upset you are leaving, but validation may take it down a notch and help your little one to move past it quicker. “I know you want to me to lay down with you. I love snuggling with you too. When we wake up in the morning, we can snuggle, but it is sleepy time. I love you and I’ll see you in the morning.”

Tell Your Little One What They Can Do

This is something I use a lot with toddler parents when I am coaching them on their child’s behavior. Whenever we tell our little ones what they can’t do, we want to tell them what they can do.  “We all need our sleep so Mommy won’t be laying down with you. If you miss me, you can hug your lovey,* close your eyes and go to sleep. We will be together in the morning when it is time to wake up.”

Is sleep completely derailed in your house? Or you just need a little help? We’d love to chat with you during a free intro call to learn more. You can start the process of learning more here.

*Keep in mind that the AAP’s safe sleep recommendations recommend that there is nothing in the crib with your baby before one year of age..  For younger than one year, you don’t want to use a lovey or anything the crib except a firm mattress, fitted sheet and your love in a sleep sack.

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