Does your child have separation anxiety? If your little one is falling apart every time you leave a room, taking forever to fall asleep, or waking up often in the night, then separation anxiety is probably your issue. Recently, we had to quickly learn how to overcome separation with L as separation anxiety hit her hard. This article contains everything we learned and the steps that we took to fix the issue both during the day and the night.
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Separation anxiety usually hits kids between 12-18 months. However, it is important to note that it usually goes hand in hand with walking. So, if your little one was an early walker then you can expect separation anxiety to start when they walk (L started walking at 10 months and this is when it kicked in for her). This is because they see the world from a whole new perspective and realize that their parent can walk away and that is very scary to them. The result is a little one who clings and desperately whines for you to pick them up and becomes red-faced screaming at you when you leave with tears running down their cheeks. The good news is separation anxiety is healthy and means that you are doing a great job at forming a strong parent attachment. The bad news? Oh that’s right, they usually don’t sleep well and only want mom to do bedtime and night waking.
*An important note on the 12-18 month range is that this is usually when most toddlers switch to 1 nap a day. Read here to find out how to determine the best nap schedule for your little one.
If you’re new here, why do I write about sleep?
Simply because my baby didn’t sleep. It might sound counter-intuitive but if you are getting sleep tips from anyone, it should be from someone whose baby was not a naturally good sleeper. You only learn how to fix things when they are broken. My child’s sleep was broken and from trying to fix it I learned a lot. I started this blog and this section to try to save you time and stress in hopes that by finding information and support here, your experience with your little one can be just that much better. Read more here.
How do you fix separation anxiety during the day?
Interestingly, the best way to fix the night issue is to work on it during the DAYTIME. Remember, we are trying to fix separation anxiety, which is causing the sleep issues. The issue is NOT that your child doesn’t want to sleep, doesn’t know how to sleep, or isn’t tired. Your little one needs to learn that when you leave, you will ALWAYS come back. How do you teach this?
1. Start with more hugs and cuddles in the day. Try using a carrier again. Nurse more often to give baby some close mom snuggles. Give them plenty of time to feel secure and near you during the day.
2. A lovey will help especially if baby associates lovey with mom. Start to include the lovey in nursing sessions and show baby how much you love the lovey (hug the lovey, etc.) so they associate the lovey with mama.
3. Play lots of peek-a-boo. This is an excellent game to teach them that it is normal to disappear and reappear. Start with just hiding behind your hands, then hide under a blanket or behind a door so they see you completely disappear and then reappear.
4. Start to play hide and seek. Don’t go too far maybe just around a corner or behind a couch and talk to them the whole time. Never look worried, smile the whole time. When they find you, clap and say “yay!”
5. Finally, try to leave the room for a minute. Tell them bye bye, smile and say that you will be back. Your little one WILL get upset but never sneak out. They won’t trust you and as a result you made the problem a lot worse. Instead, say bye and come back in one minute (or less depending on how much they panic). Do this again and again throughout the day so they realize it is normal for mom to leave and come back.
When daytime has improved, start with naps
For nap time, start early before baby is tired. Maybe about 10 minutes before you usually start nap time. Place baby in crib, if baby cries whenever you place them in a crib, switch to a new environment such as a Pack n Play. Place a book and a crib safe lovey in the Pack n Play. Sit right outside of the Pack n Play or crib and play peek a boo. Get baby happy to be in the crib. The baby must associate the crib/Pack n Play as a happy place. Check your emotions and expressions around nap and bedtime as baby will mimic these. If your baby already has a negative association with the crib, try a Pack n Play.
The main point is to reassure your baby that you always come back. This might be annoying and hard to do for a few nights but if you do it correctly, you save yourself a lot of time in the long run. So what to do? Always comfort them when they need it. This might be anything from talking to them, to rubbing their backs, picking them up, nursing them or even rocking them. The key is that you do this for a certain time limit like count to 50 then you place them back in their crib.
Next, try sitting in a chair near the crib. Always comfort or pick up baby when baby is upset. Return baby to the crib after they are calm. Even if baby gets upset each time when you place them in the crib, pick them up again and again. You need to spend time building up the positive association with the crib. Leaving them in the crib upset will hurt your progress because you are trying to overcome separation anxiety not the ability to fall asleep. You can even try to distract them while they are in the crib with a book, mirror or a lovey. Talk to them in happy tones and smile. Do not whisper, this scares a lot of children. Eventually, baby will fall asleep and it doesn’t matter how many times you picked them up or how you got there as long as baby fell asleep in the crib/Pack n Play.
Continue this for a few naps and baby will start to need less picking up/comforting/nursing and you can just sit in a chair or near the crib. Once you have accomplished this step, now try to leave the room, say goodnight (smile!) and I will be right back to check on you. Then leave and come back in a minute. It might seem that all your progress is gone because baby becomes hysterical when you leave. Just remember, smile and show baby there is nothing to fear. Keep repeating this. Always make sure to comfort baby if baby is upset when you come back in. If you are worried, baby will know to always be worried. After a few days of increasing the time slowly that you leave, baby will start to play and not worry that you won’t come back and instead fall asleep playing.
And finally, night…
Once you have mastered the nap, switch to night. Add a nightlight to their room, a pitch black environment might scare them at this age. Remember good bedtime routines are key along with an environment that promotes sleep.
By now you might be thinking this process might seem like a lot of work but if you put in this work now you can save yourself many nights and days of dealing with high separation anxiety, which can last a very long time and wear on you.
Here, you start exactly as you did with the nap. The important steps, similar to the nap is that you create positive associations with the crib, teach them that you will always come back to check on them, comfort them if they need it, and that they fall asleep in their crib. In my experience, separation anxiety is harder at bedtime than at nap time. To lessen it, make sure you leave plenty of baby/mama time before bed to nurse, hug or cuddle up and read some books.
The total process will take about a week to two weeks. At the end, baby will be okay with you leaving them in their crib because they know you will always be there for them when they need you and if you ask me, I think that is a pretty big success for you as a parent. All great relationships are built on trust.
What if you don’t have the patience or are just too tired?
I really do understand that there comes a point when you are just too tired to deal with putting baby to bed anymore. It’s exhausting day in and day out. With exhaustion comes little to no patience. If you know you are struggling with patience and are very tired, I highly recommend getting the other parent involved. Why do I suggest this? Because of how a child will view the two options you can choose from. Option 1: you leave them alone and they think you aren’t coming back. Option 2: You leave them with a loving parent who can reassure them with words that you will come back. Their separation anxiety isn’t going to worsen using the help of a second parent because they still have a support system, while if you just leave them, their fears become more real.
In this option, I would start with nursing and then follow with you saying goodnight (smile) and handing baby off to the other parent to follow exactly what I laid out here with naps and then bedtime. If you don’t think the other parent is going to be able to do this or are a single mom, I would suggest getting a grandparent that you trust or someone else you trust that baby knows well to help you tackle this sleep issue.
Quick Note: As I mentioned, the crib really might be the problem. They might have negative associations with it. My suggestion, try a Pack n Play but make sure to promote positive associations with the new “crib”. Another great reason that a Pack n Play might be your answer for awhile, if you have a mover, they can bounce, stand and throw themselves all over the place and “play” without bumping into crib railings and getting hurt. My little one loves to “play” in her Pack n Play for a good 15 minutes before falling asleep.
What have you tried to overcome separation anxiety?
I’m always eager to learn new things so please let me know in the comments.
For a comprehensive look at baby sleep, check out my sleeping page.
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Trina Fitzgerald is a wife, mom, and blogger. She is the co-author of the Week-by-Week Bump Smart Course, the Nesting Planner and the Breastfeeding Handbook. She attributes her success at breastfeeding her own children with working with lactation consultants in the hospital in the early stages and on a weekly basis afterwards. By writing at MomSmartNotHard, she educates mamas-to-be on all things pregnancy, birth and breastfeeding. Read more about Trina.