What is separation anxiety?
In my experience as a sleep consultant and as a nanny I have come across separation anxiety many times, but by far the hardest was when it hit my own children! This awkward stage of separation anxiety can be confusing, you may be wondering what is going on, what has happened to my happy go lucky baby?
Separation anxiety tends to pop up at three different ages and stages. The first is when your baby understands that you, the parent, exists as a separate person. They understand that you can leave, but don’t yet understand that you’re coming back.
The first signs of separation anxiety can appear around 9 months of age and can hit again at 12 months, then tends to peak around 18 months but sometimes there seems to be no rhyme or reason to it or when it hits. How it affects your child will depend on their individual development and temperament. How long it lasts is individual to each baby too, but how you deal with it will have a huge impact on how your child copes during separation anxiety and if they experience another episode.
Separation anxiety is a normal and a healthy developmental stage. Realising this can help you stay calm and hold things together when it gets a bit emotional. When your child is going through separation anxiety they are practicing building resilience, the ability to bounce back from difficult times. Helping them to cope through this new experience in their early years gives them a head start and will help them cope when you do decide to start day-care or that exciting sleep over with grandma.
When sleep training a baby or toddler that is experiencing separation anxiety, we advise to take things slowly. More often that not I find choosing an in-the-room sleep training technique is best as it allows you to support your child through their anxiety whilst continuing to learn how to self-settle.
Tips to overcoming separation anxiety
I hope these tips will help you navigate this sometimes-emotional stage, and help you when dropping your baby or toddler off at grandma’s or day-care or even just to pop to the loo (by yourself).
- Playing a game like peek a boo is a great way to show your baby that even though he can’t see you, it doesn’t mean you won’t come back – Look, there is mummy again!
- You can also help your little one by walking away for a few minutes while your child is busy playing with a toy, or blocks or colouring. When they’re distracted it’s a great time to go away for a few minutes, just return before your baby gets upset. He will realise you’re gone, but as he’s distracted it takes a little longer for him to cotton on. And as he’s still calm when you return, he’s getting gentle practice in realising you do actually come back.
- Babies and toddlers suffering from separation anxiety really need to experience you leaving and returning to get their head around it. The more practice and experience they get, the more your baby will understand that it is OK. Mum goes, but she comes back. If you’re always by your child’s side, separation anxiety can be delayed, meaning they may not experience it until they start kindergarten or an overnight stay with family and this can be very difficult at an older age.
- When you’re leaving it can be tempting to leave when your child isn’t looking because you don’t want to upset them. However, then trust becomes an issue. It’s important not to break your child’s trust so they can rely on you and trust that you will come back. Always calmly and confidently say good bye with a quick kiss and a cuddle (don’t drag the goodbye out). Leave even if your child seems upset stay positive and carry on, making sure to praise them when you return and reassure them – see mummy did come back all is OK.
- Hand in hand with not sneaking out, is not hanging around and dragging out your departure as this only reinforces to your child that there really is something to be afraid of. They can sense that you are nervous and unsure and this only leads to exaggerated tears and fear. Leaving can be hard when your little one is upset but try not to let that make you go back to them. Going back to them once you’ve left just gives them reason to cry longer and harder next time
- When you leave, leave with the confidence that everything is OK. Yes, you’ll likely have to fake it and paint on a smile, but it will help your child realise that you’re comfortable leaving her, and by sensing your confidence she’ll be reassured. Leaving with confidence is much more reassuring than hanging around and getting anxious yourself, especially for toddlers who feel more secure when things are black and white.
When separation anxiety hits your toddler, you’ll see more tantrums or hysterical crying and screaming. At this stage of life your child already has a strong sense of attachment and they also want more control over their lives – so it’s important to help them deal with this. By now they know you’ll come back, but they’d prefer it if you’d stay. And if crying brought you back into the in the past they’ll give it their best crack again. How you deal with this will either see this behaviour blow over, or continue for a long time.
I’m really passionate about this issue (that’s no surprise) because sleep works Even in the middle of separation anxiety, if your baby or toddler is sleeping well, they will have much better coping skills. Everything is so much tougher with little sleep. So, you need to make sure they’re getting at least their recommended ammout of sleep for their age.