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  • Writer's pictureMary Cantwell

Separation Anxiety and Sleep

Updated: Jan 10

Separation anxiety & sleep. At least once a week I get the question, “Does Separation Anxiety affect sleep?”. The answer is YES!! It is a normal part of every child’s development, and it will pop up in babyhood, toddlerhood, and splattering in preschool. Let’s chat through why, when, how it affects sleep and what we can do to help guide them through it.

Why Does Separation Anxiety occur?

Around 8-10 months, your baby now realizes that you walked out of the room to go to the bathroom, and they are all kinds of upset. This is directly tied to the development of Object Permanence which typically occurs between 4-7 Months of age.

What is that?? Object permanence is when a child understands that an object still exists when they don’t see it in front of them and the development of understanding time and when they see that object again don’t align.

What does that look like? Imagine hiding a toy behind your back, baby starts trying to look behind you to see where it went and then gets super excited that they see it again when we bring it back out. This development now rolls into when Mom or Dad leaves the room, they know they are still there somewhere but not sure when they are coming back (time recognition isn’t there yet) and it causes them to be anxious about when you reappear.

Signs of Separations Anxiety:

· Increased clinginess or crying

· Fussiness and gets upset when you hand them to a new person

· Gets upset when you are out of sight

· Crying when you leave the room

· Have a harder time falling asleep or start to wake up in the night when they didn’t prior.

· Starts waking up out of the blue super upset.

· Refuses to sleep alone.

signs of separation anxiety

When does Separation Anxiety happen in babies and toddlers?

Separation anxiety ranges from 6 months to 2 years of age. We see it emerge typically around 8-10 months and peak at 14-18 months. Keep in mind that with any child there is a range from the development side and to use this as a guide. These pop ups of separation anxiety typically align up with motor developments and or sleep changes such as transitioning to 2 naps or 1 nap, a new sibling or moving to a new house.

It is a normal part of development, and you will see they don’t want to go to bed as they normally do or start seeing wakes occur that weren’t there prior. As we get closer to 2 to 3 years of age it typically softens as they become more aware, understanding develops more of the world and we can have conversations around when we leave for an errand, Daddy will watch you and you will return very soon.

Do we see separation anxiety in the preschool years?

Since we passed the toddler years, does that mean we are good to go with separation anxiety? Typically, it improves as they head into the preschool years, but you may see it when there are big changes in their life. These changes would be a new sibling, transition to a big kid bed, new house or learning to potty train.

It is very normal during these big changes that a child will push back on all the things! This ranges from eating, getting dressed, bedtime, you name it. It is a normal part of development and the best tip to work though this faster is to maintain the warm but firm boundaries consistently. Consistency is the name of the game!

How does separation anxiety affect sleep

separation anxiety and sleep

How to help with Separation Anxiety

1. Create a goodbye routine

It can be silly, simple or sweet. You pick and stay consistent when we leave for extended periods that we do the goodbye routine. It can be as simple as we kiss each check, their nose and say Mom is leaving to go to Target and will be back soon.

2. Don’t sneak out

When we leave for an extended amount of time, be sure to do your goodbye routine and let them know you are leaving. If we leave without letting them know, it can heighten the feeling of separation anxiety.

3. Play Peek A Boo and Hide and Seek Games

Practicing Peek A Boo with our infants/young toddlers helps them practice that we “disappear” then “reappear”. For our older toddlers and preschoolers, we can flip between peek a boo and hide and seek to practice the same concepts. If we can even use our voice as a guide during hide and seek so they know we are nearby but can’t see us.

4. Stay calm and confident upon leaving

If a child gets upset when we leave, stay calm and confident and then leave as we had mentioned to them. The more they “feel” our calm when we leave and then return that becomes their normal routine and decreases the heightened feelings from separation anxiety.

What can we do on the sleep side?

1. Introduce a lovey if over 12 months to help transition to sleep

Start incorporating the lovey into your sleep routine so that they start associating it with sleep. A couple of spaces to incorporate it into your sleep routine and let them hold onto it during the bedtime feed, when you are reading books, changing diaper or putting on the sleep sack. As we consistently use it with sleep, your child will gravitate towards it for sleep. You can incorporate the Lovey prior to 12 months but do not place the lovey in the crib until after 12 months to adhere to safe sleep practices. As we consistently use it with sleep, your child will gravitate towards it for sleep.

2. Carve out ten minutes of 1:1 time

It doesn’t have to be near bedtime! It can be anywhere it fits in the day to fill their cup. If possible, let the time be child lead so that they feel engaged with us and get our full attention. It can make such a difference at the end of the night!

3. Consistent Bedtime/Nap Routine

This sounds so simple and it is one of the most important pieces of the puzzle. The more that gets added in or taken away the more it heightens the feeling of uncertainty. As they have big feelings about the routine, stay warm and firm as we move through the routine.

4. Don’t add steps that aren’t sustainable

Remember that this is a normal part of development and affirms that you have created the attachment with your child. If you don’t normally rock to sleep prior and don’t want that to become our new sleep pattern, would not add that step in as it will become our sleep pattern. That being said, if that additional step doesn’t bother your family and is sustainable, then keep it!

5. Use their room outside of sleep

To help prevent them from getting upset as we enter into their room as they know the separation is around the corner, start hanging out in their room for different things. It can be from doing a diaper change, reading a book or playing with toys on the floor or putting away laundry while they play in the crib.

Know this is a season, a normal part of development and affirms you have created that amazing attachment with your child. Lean on your partner and friends if you need a break or go for a walk to regulate yourself. As always, if you feel like your child’s may be hitting separation anxiety and want to chat on how to guide them, let’s set up a complimentary Discovery Call so that you can ask questions on how I serve families and I can get more information on what is happening sleep wise.

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Apr 15, 2023

Welcome to Baby Magazine Today, your trusted source for all things related to parenting and child development. Separation anxiety is a common issue that many parents face when it comes to their children's sleep. It can be difficult for both parents and children to deal with, but there are ways to help your child cope with separation anxiety and get a good night's sleep.

At Baby Magazine Today, we understand how important sleep is for both children and parents. That's why we offer a wide range of resources and information to help you understand separation anxiety and develop strategies to help your child sleep better.

From tips on establishing a consistent bedtime routine to advice on creating a sleep-friendly environment,…

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