Patience and connection: Understanding and dealing with separation anxiety
Separation anxiety is something almost all children struggle with at some point, and it can be a difficult situation for parents to navigate.
We never want to be cold and deny our little one cuddles, but we also know that our baby can’t stay attached to our hip forever. And, in the moment, it always tug on our heartstrings when separation anxiety rears its head.
However, take heart.
If anything, your baby experiencing separation anxiety proves you’ve developed a loving relationship and a secure bond. It means that they’re comforted by your presence – and that they know you are the one giving them their love and care!
While the idea of separation anxiety can often invoke dread, the process doesn’t actually have to be painful.
There’s certainly ways to avoid excessive crying and screaming!
Understanding why it’s happening
While an infant can experience separation anxiety at any point, they’ll most commonly experience it around 9, 12, 18 and 24 months old.
Bouts of separation anxiety at bed-time commonly arise during transformational times when your baby is adjusting – whether it’s starting preschool or day care for the first time, a parent going back to work, or a new sibling arriving and taking up more time and attention then they’re used to.
As they can’t fully understand the situation, they are bound to be upset about not having you around as much as they were used to.
Your baby has reached the development stage where they realise that you disappear from sight but don't cease to exist. This is called object permeance. You can play games of peekaboo, gradually move further away, hide behind chairs and reappear. Teach him that you do come back after being out of sight.
Letting them self-settle
The crucial thing to remember is that while your baby might be battling separation anxiety, they haven’t forgotten the great self-settling skills they’ve learnt.
While it can look that all your hard work and skill development has gone out the window when they’re agitated and worked up when they should be going to sleep, it’s likely that they just know you’re going to be leaving the room and so they are getting stressed.
Despite appearances, your baby at this point doesn’t suddenly need you to help them get to sleep.
It can be tempting to soothe or comfort your upset baby, but even so much as patting your baby back to sleep may undo your previous efforts in the long run.
Your baby simply needs you – your presence, connection and time.
Dr Ferber explains "Work on sleep associations first ensuring your baby can self settle, then deal with separation anxiety problems later. You may need to sleep in the same room as him all night, but even then you can still insist on sleeping on a separate bed or mattress, refuse to hold or rock him or eliminate a dummy.'
Even sitting on a chair next to their cot or bed while they fall asleep is a great option to just be present without interrupting their own self-settling techniques.
To help make getting to sleep a bit easier when your child is experiencing separation anxiety, a nice and extended bedroom routine is another great option.
Have a bit of time together before it’s sleep time so that your baby feels like they’ve had some attention and one-on-one time with you – whether it’s reading a book together, listening to some gentle music or even hanging out with them during bath time.
It’s all about patience
We all know how it is.
As parents, our lives are busy and come sometimes feel very hectic. By the time it gets to the end of the day, we often feel tired, frustrated and a little bit more impatient than we normally would.
But patience is perhaps the most important weapon to beat separation anxiety. If you’re baby is fussing and not going off to sleep because you’re leaving the room, the answer isn’t to soothe them in an attempt to get them to sleep quicker. If anything, that’ll make the situation a whole lot worse in the long run!
Instead, it’s best to back off and just be with them while they get themselves to sleep.
It might take close to 40 minutes (as that’s how long many older infants take to fall asleep). But if you stay patient and wait for them to comfort themselves, your baby will alleviate their own separation anxiety much quicker than if you were to try and intervene.
Doing it together
Separation is a tough one. We want to be there for our little ones, but we also know that we can’t be right at our baby’s side forever (and nor do we always feel like we want to be!)
It’s never a quick fix to alleviate separation anxiety, but it’s so worthwhile to work through it properly and patiently. Giving your baby the presence, time and connection to feel your love, whilst also letting them use their great self-soothing skills, will save you both a lot of stress and unnecessary hassle!
Dr Jodi Mindell explains....
"The good news is that each time your baby's sleep begins to be problematic, if you have a set bed time routine and put her to bed awake, she will return to sleeping through the night quicker and well less fuss each time."
If separation anxiety has lead to unwanted sleep associations becoming habitual and bed time is more drama than ease it might be time to get in touch with our team and let us get you back on track.
Emma is the owner and founder of Baby Sleep Consultant, she is a certified infant and child sleep consultant, Happiest Baby on the block educator, has a Bachelor of Science, and Diploma in Education. Emma is a mother to 3 children, and loves writing when she isn't working with tired clients and cheering on her team helping thousands of mums just like you.
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