Sleep is your very first separation from your baby and from day one, it creates anxiety for many parents. Almost every parent has experienced that moment of standing over their baby’s crib to check if their little one is breathing. Maybe you have even touched your baby and roused them to check they are okay at night? This separation anxiety is a completely normal phase of early parenting.
Anxiety over sleep safety is one of the reasons most parents choose to have their baby in their room for the first few weeks, because hearing their little one’s fluttery breaths and new baby grunts reassures a parent that their baby is okay.
If we as adults suffer anxiety over separating from our babies for sleep times, it is understandable that at some stage in the first few years, your baby or toddler too will suffer some anxiety when separating from the person they depend on so completely. So, when looking for reasons why your baby is waking at night, you need to consider whether separation anxiety is affecting your baby’s sleep.
Separation anxiety in the first two years
While separation anxiety starts from day one in parents, for babies, separation anxiety only raises its head a little later. Most newborn babies do not experience separation anxiety. The reason is that although your baby recognises you when they see you from early on, they have no memory of you when you are not around. It takes time for the part of the brain that develops memory and the expectation of cause and effect to develop. Secondly, your young baby has no concept of time and space, so whether you are gone for a second or a few hours, the separation is equally irrelevant for your newborn.
6 – 8 month separation anxiety
This blissful ignorance disappears at around 6 to 8 months of age, when your baby develops object permanence. This is the concept that something exists when you can’t see it. At 5 months old, when a toy drops from your baby’s line of vision, they won’t pursue it or look for it as it literally ceases to exist in their little mind. However, usually by 8 months old, your baby will start to look for something when it drops or moves out of their vision. At this point, they have worked out that the object exists even if they’re not holding it, in other words they have developed object permanence.
As this realization dawns and memory develops, your baby will likewise begin to realize that when you leave them, you still exist. This does not please them because by now they have formed a strong attachment to you and may protest the separation and cry when you leave.
4 – 5 month separation anxiety
At around 4 months, some babies begin to display displeasure when mom or dad are not around. These babies are usually our slow to warm up babies [hyperlink to sensory personality test] – babies who like consistency and predictability in their world. If your baby is a slow to warm up baby, they will feel most secure when you are around and protest when you are not in the room.
Toddler separation anxiety
Toddlers can become notoriously clingy and battle with separation. It’s a developmental stage when autonomy and doubt are playing out in your toddler’s psyche. Toddlers desperately want to be independent and ‘do it themselves’ but at the same time feel anxious when challenged with novelty. At night this is even worse as imagination kicks in and fears and dreams impact nighttime emotions and thus night wakings.
Top tips to manage separation anxiety
In addition to the classic ages and stages for separation anxiety, it’s important to remember that separation anxiety can also be a reaction to an upheaval in your little one’s life. The birth of a sibling, mom going back to work, a nanny leaving or going to crèche for the first time can result in a normally very settled baby or toddler becoming clingy and start to cry the moment you leave their sight.
Regardless of the source of separation anxiety (stage or reaction), there are a few guidelines you can follow to ease the pain and help your little one to feel more secure:
- Play separation games such as Hide and Seek and Peek-A-Boo often – this will help your little one to learn the permanence of things and that they do exist even when not seen.
- Encourage a transition object such as a doodoo blanky which will offer comfort when you are not around.
- Do not be tempted to sneak out when you need to leave – always say goodbye and be joyful on return.
How to deal with separation anxiety at night
Separation anxiety does affect sleep in different ways at different ages. Your baby may experience 6-month-old separation anxiety at night or more likely experience the typical 9 or 10 month old separation anxiety.
The truth is that most babies will experience separation anxiety at night sometime between 6 to 12 months old. During this window, separation anxiety usually peaks at about 9 months and includes clinginess, crying or tantrums and resisting things that require separation. Another tell-tale sign of separation anxiety is refusal to sleep alone or waking frequently in the night, crying.
Separation anxiety is a phase in normal development and there’s no single answer that can ‘fix’ it overnight but there are some practices you can apply to bring down the level of anxiety your little one might be experiencing:
- Your baby may wake during light sleep states to be reassured that you will return to them. If you feel that their waking is due to separation anxiety; go to them and tell them gently to go back to sleep, give them a ‘doodoo’ blanky or a soft toy they are fond of and leave the room. You do not want to start a habit at this stage, such as feeding or rocking them to sleep but you do want to respond to demonstrate to them that you do return after a separation.
- When you have to leave your little one during the day, always say goodbye when you leave – even if it’s just to have a shower – and always greet them happily when you return. This way your baby learns that separations are followed by happy reunions.
- A sleep association toy or blanky is vital at this stage so that your baby can be comforted by a blanky which they can use independently to self soothe when they wake at night. Ensuring that your little one can self soothe using an object or action is essential if you are considering gentle sleep training with separation anxiety.
- Finally, approach this stage with lots of hugs and cuddles and bear with it – as with most challenges in the first year, this too will pass.
Toddler separation anxiety at night
We’ve talked about why babies from 6 to 12 months (and particularly between 7 and 9 months) experience separation anxiety at night. By the time your little one reaches 18 months, your toddler is aware that you are a separate person from them, but they also experience fear and anxiety from about 18 months until they are a preschooler. This is because they are at the age when they start to develop autonomy and imagination.
The emergence of these two skills is normal and age-appropriate but the same imagination that can turn the backyard into a fairy garden can hear a monster under the bed. Every toddler is different and the degree to which yours will be affected may vary substantially from other babies you know. But if you have noticed that your little one gets anxious when you put them to bed in the evening, complains of nightmares or comes through to your room frequently at night due to fears of being alone then it’s very likely that separation anxiety is the reason for their (and your) broken sleep.
Here are some ways to handle toddler separation anxiety at night:
- Use a night light in their bedroom or the passage so that they can see at night if they wake up.
- Limit television completely for three hours before bed as this has been linked to fears and increased nightmares.
- If your toddler won’t stay in bed, you might have to put firm boundaries in place to encourage them to stay in bed. This could be agreeing to sit with them until they are asleep if they stay in their bed. You can then start weaning this down to returning every five minutes until the are asleep if they stay in bed.
- Put a radio on softly in the room for background noise.
- Put a mattress under your bed that you can pull out for them on those nights that they wake from a bad nightmare or simply need proximity to you.
Remember that separation anxiety is real and must be dealt with by responding to your baby or toddler 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 and form long term bad habits. Be firm about not falling into the trap of feeding, rocking, or co-sleeping if these are habits you don’t want to encourage. Separation anxiety in babies at night doesn’t last forever, hang in there!
If you want more help getting your little one into a consistent night sleep routine, download the Parent Sense app now for custom routines designed specifically for your baby or sign up for the Sleep Sense course and say goodnight to sleepless nights.