Separation Anxiety - 14 strategies you can start right now!
Your child has always been a pretty good sleeper, but suddenly your bedtime routine is filled with battles. She gets scared when you leave the room; she clings to you and won't let you go. And during the night she wakes up and cries until you come over. She's being clingy during the day, as well. Do you think that she has separation anxiety?
It's very likely that separation anxiety is the culprit here, since this normal and very common childhood condition that peaks sometime between the first and third birthday. Nearly all children experience separation anxiety at some point. Some have more intense reactions than others, and the stages last longer for some than others. For a number of children, this fear becomes a cause for new bedtime problems.
Separation anxiety is one of the main reasons of sleep disorders in early childhood. The child often begins to resist sleep immediately at the start of the rituals that lead up to bedtime. Sometimes the source is a problem separating from parents. The refusal to lie down and go to sleep may express the anxiety related to the coming separation, the need to continue the pleasurable connection with the parents, and anxieties related to nighttime, darkness, and being alone in the dark.
Why does a child have separation anxiety?
The development of separation anxiety demonstrates that your child has formed a healthy, loving attachment to you. It is a beautiful sign that your child associates pleasure, comfort, and security with your presence. It also indicates that your child is developing intellectually, in other words… She's really fucking smart! Your baby has learned that he can have an effect on the world when he makes his needs known, and he doesn't have to passively except a situation that makes him uncomfortable. He doesn't know enough about the world yet to understand that when you leave him, you'll always come back. Your baby may also realize that he is safest, happiest, and the best cared for by you. So a baby's reluctance to part makes perfect sense, especially when viewed from a survival standpoint: You are your baby's source of nourishment, both physical and emotional, therefore, your baby's attachment to you means of survival. Baby realizes this when he or she reaches a certain level of intellectual maturity.
This stage, like so many others in childhood, shall pass. In the meantime, your child will learn that she can separate from you for the night, that you will return in the morning, and that everything will be okay between those two points in time. Much of this learning is based on trust, which, as for every human being young or old, takes time to build.
Why does separation anxiety affect sleep?
If you stop to think about it, usually the longest separation between you and your child is during her nighttime sleep when the two of you are a part for 10 to 12 hours. During this time, your child will have a number of brief awakenings from sleep when she'll open her eyes and realize that she is all alone. The same thing happens every night, so when your child realizes that this long separation is about to occur, it may create struggles at bedtime.
How do you know if your child has separation anxiety?
Separation anxiety is pretty easy to spot, and you're probably reading the section because you've identified in your child. The following are typical behaviours of child with normal separation anxiety:
- Refusal to go to sleep without a parent nearby
- Crying when a parent is out of sight, ring the day or at night
- Strong preference for only one parent, shown particularly at bedtime
- Fear of strangers or new situations
- Waking at night, crying for a parent
- Being easily comforted at the parents embrace
How can you help your child with separation anxiety?
Children will naturally outgrow separation anxiety, but there are ways for you to support and encourage your child during this process. Many of these ideas will also speed along your child's emotional maturity when it comes to separation.
- Allow your child to be a child. It's totally okay, even wonderful, for your child to be so attached to you and for her desire for your constant companionship. Congratulations! It’s evidence that the bond you've worked so hard to create is holding.
- So, ignore those who tell you otherwise!
- Don't worry about spoiling him with love, or providing him with the attention he needs as he's going to sleep, or when he wakes up. The more you meet his attachment needs at bedtime now, the more quickly he will outgrow his insecurities.
- Minimize the separations when possible, especially at bedtime. It's perfectly acceptable for now, better in fact, to avoid situations that would have you separate from your child's at his bedtime. All too soon, your child will move past this phase and onto the next developmental milestone. Most children outgrow the worst of separation anxiety by their third birthday, and for many more it disappears by the time they are five.
- Practice with quick, safe separations throughout the day. Create situations of brief separation. When you were in the middle of your child's bedtime routine or just after she gets into bed, take a brief trips to another room and whistle, sing, or talk to your child so she knows you're still there even though she can't see you.
- Don't sneak away when you have to leave, whether it's for a brief jaunt to another room or going to your own bed... it seems easier than dealing with a tearful goodbye, but it will just cause her constant worry that you're going to disappear without warning at any given moment.
- Tell your child what they can expect. If you're going out for an evening, and leaving her at home, explain where you were going and tell her when you'll be back. Don't expect her to go to sleep easily while you are away, so prepare the caregiver so they will know what to expect. One night of a late bedtime may even be better than having the caretaker deal with a crying child.
- Leave your child with familiar people. If you must leave your child, especially at bedtime, try to leave her with a familiar caregiver. If you must leave her with someone new, arrange a few visits when you'll be all together before you leave the two of them alone for the first time.
- Express a positive attitude when leaving them. Whether you are off to work or an evening out, leave with a smile! Your child will absorb your emotions, so if you're nervous about leaving them, your baby will be nervous as well. Your confidence on the other hand, will help alleviate your child's fears.
- Make sure that any caregiver will put your child to bed, knows the exact bedtime routine. Write it down so that the consistency of the nighttime ritual can we kept the same as usual. This will bring comfort and security and ward off anxiety.
- Encourage your baby to have a relationship with a special blanket, stuffed animal, or toy. These snuggies can be a comfort to your baby at naptime and bedtime since they create a feeling of security.
- During the day, follow your child with the separation that she initiates. If she goes off to play in another room, don't rush after her. Listen and peek of course, to make sure that she's safe, but let her know it's fine for her to go off exploring on her own. These little practice sessions will build her confidence in separations from you.
- Don't take it personally if only one parent is accepted easily for the bedtime routine. Many children go through stage of attaching themselves to one or the other parent, and it can be most pronounced when the child is tired. For the other parent, as well as grandparents, siblings, and friends, this can be difficult to except. Try to reassure them that is just a temporary and normal phase of development, and with a little time and gentle patience it will pass.
- If you have an older toddler or preschooler with a vivid imagination, you can take advantage of this by adding a new step to his bedtime routine. Before you leave the room, give your child a "little daddy" or a "little mommy" to sleep with her. Simply cup your hands as if you're holding something and pretend to give a tiny version of yourself. Ask him if you can have one of his to take to your own room... this little idea I can come in handy for daytime separations too!