Separation anxiety in babies at night is something almost all parents grapple with. As an Occupational Therapist specialising in fussy babies with sleep and feeding problems, I’ve helped countless parents who quickly come to realise that sleep is the first way in which they are separated from their babies.
Almost every parent (myself included!) has stood over their baby’s crib to check if they are breathing. Maybe you have even touched your baby and roused them to check they are okay. As difficult as it may be, separation anxiety is a completely normal phase of early parenting.
But what about separation anxiety in babies at night? Afterall, if we as adults have anxiety over separating from our babies at sleep times, it is understandable that your baby or toddler too will suffer some separation anxiety, too. Let’s explore some of the signs of separation anxiety in babies at night and what to do about it.
What is separation anxiety in babies at night?
Separation anxiety is a common developmental stage that typically occurs in babies between the ages of 6 months and 2 years. At night, separation anxiety can manifest as a reluctance to be separated from a parent (or caregiver), which can result in difficulty settling down to sleep and/or frequent waking during the night.
Babies with separation anxiety at night may cry or get upset when mom or dad tries to leave the room. They may also be clingy, irritable or more fussy than usual. These behaviors can be distressing for both parents and their baby (and mean that everyone gets less sleep!).
Why does separation anxiety happen in babies at night?
There are a few reasons why separation anxiety can occur in babies at night. Firstly, babies at this age are beginning to develop a sense of object permanence. This means that they start to understand that objects and people continue to exist even when they cannot see them. So when you try to leave the room, your baby can get upset because they understand that you are still there, but they can’t see you.
Another reason for separation anxiety at night is that babies at this age are beginning to develop a sense of routine and predictability. When a parent leaves the room or the baby’s sleeping environment changes, it can disrupt the baby’s sense of routine and make them feel anxious or upset.
Lastly, separation anxiety may be a result of the baby’s natural attachment to their primary caregiver. Babies rely on their caregivers for comfort, safety, and security. When they are separated from their caregiver, they may feel vulnerable or scared.
Development of separation anxiety in babies at night in the first two years
Remember that separation anxiety is a normal part of a baby’s emotional and social development between the ages of 6 months to 2 years. Here’s a brief overview of the signs of separation anxiety in babies at night at each age:
At this age, babies are becoming more aware of their surroundings and developing a sense of object permanence. They may start to become upset or anxious when mom or dad leaves the room or when they are put down to sleep.
As babies become more mobile and begin to explore their environment, they may become more attached to their primary caregiver. This may also result in stronger feelings of separation anxiety. At this age, babies also have a sense of routine and may become upset if their bedtime routine is disrupted.
During this time, babies start to become more aware of social cues and may be wary of strangers or unfamiliar situations. Babies at this age also have a basic concept of time (routine) and start to anticipate separation from their parents.
As toddlers become more independent, they start to develop autonomy and imagination. These are important, age-appropriate skills. But the same imagination that can see the backyard as a castle, can also hear a monster under the bed. This can result in nightmares. Limit television for 3 hours before bed, and use a nightlight to reassure your toddler of their safety at night.
It’s important to note that every baby is different, and the development of separation anxiety can vary from child to child. Additionally, some babies may experience separation anxiety more strongly than others, and some may take longer to overcome it. You can help support your child’s emotional development by being patient, responsive, and consistent.
8 Tips to manage separation anxiety in babies at night
Although managing separation anxiety in babies at night can be challenging, there are several strategies that can be helpful. Here are some tips to help manage separation anxiety in babies at night:
1. Establish a consistent bedtime routine
Creating a consistent bedtime routine can help your baby feel more secure and comfortable at night. This routine can include activities in a sequence, like bathing, singing a lullaby and reading a story. Remember to avoid stimulation and most of all, stick to the same routine every night.
2. Gradually increase separation time
If your baby is struggling with separation anxiety at night, try gradually increasing the amount of time you spend away from them. Start by leaving the room for just a few minutes at a time and gradually increase the amount of time you spend away. This can help your baby learn that you will always return and can help them feel more secure.
3. Give them attachment objects
An attachment object like a stuffed animal or blanket can help them feel more secure and provide a source of comfort when you are not with them.
4. Stay calm and reassuring
It’s important to stay calm and reassuring when your baby is experiencing separation anxiety. Let your baby know that you understand how they feel and that you will always return. Reassure them with a soothing voice, gentle touch and lots of cuddles.
5. Use white noise
White noise can be a helpful tool to soothe your baby and help them feel more relaxed. You can use a white noise machine or app to create a calming environment for your baby to sleep in.
6. Practice positive reinforcement
When your baby is able to successfully manage separation anxiety, praise and reward them. This can help reinforce positive behavior and encourage them to continue to feel secure and comfortable at night.
7. Play separation games
Separation games like Hide and Seek and Peek-A-Boo can help your baby learn that things and people still exist even when they can’t see them. Play these little games often in the day time and make them fun!
8. Always say goodbye
Don’t be tempted to sneak out when you need to leave the house during the day. Always say goodbye and be happy to see your baby when you return. This helps them to know that even if you leave, you are coming back.
How long does separation anxiety in babies at night last?
We’ve discussed that separation anxiety is a normal part of a baby’s development. Separation anxiety usually resolves on its own as your baby grows older and develops a greater sense of security and independence.
While it’s a normal part of development, remember that separation anxiety is real. The best way to deal with it is by responding to your baby with empathy and care. Try to be patient and resilient while your little one feels things that you know are unfounded. Stay calm and resist the urge to give in to feeding, rocking or co-sleeping. These are hard habits to break so try and avoid them as much as possible. As with most phases, separation anxiety in babies at night doesn’t last forever – hang in there!
If you need help getting your little one into a consistent night sleep routine, download my app. Parent Sense will customise a routine specifically for your baby. What’s more is that you can sign up for my proven Sleep Sense course inside the app and start saying goodnight to sleepless nights.