How to help your baby or toddler with sleep when they are experiencing separation anxiety.
Separation is a natural part of life. Babies separate from their mothers at birth when the umbilical cord is cut. When we fall asleep we separate from the world around us. We settle into sleep, and let go of our awareness. For a baby just coming into awareness of their surroundings and their world, this process can very likely feel unsettling.
Over time, a baby learns that they are safe when they fall asleep, even when they are not with their primary caregiver(s). It requires a baby to trust that they can settle into sleep, and their connection to their parent (or other caregiver) will be there when they wake.
This is a tall order to ask of our children, yet, it is vitally important that they learn this lesson so they can settle into sleep more easily, and can feel comfortable letting go. It also allows others to care for them, knowing their parent will be back.
Babies become anxious around separating when they recognize that they are separate beings, and that they can be left. It is an indication of a child’s budding awareness that they truly are separate from their mother. There is a new found freedom as they start to explore their world more, but there is also worry that they might be left behind.
We are hard wired to want to be close to those that love us. We are social creatures, and we rely on our connection to our loved ones to keep us safe. Parents often feel conflicted about how to approach the issue of separation, and that conflict can wreak havoc on sleep. On the one hand, we want to make sure our children feel securely attached, and we don’t want them to feel abandoned or scared. On the other, we desperately need sleep and rest ourselves, and we want to be sure our children are rested. To reassure a child multiple times a night that you are right there can take a toll on our mental and physical well being. What is the best way to reconcile this struggle?
Independence and attachment do not have to be opposing points of view. They are two sides of the same coin. Babies who feel securely attached to their parents are more likely to become secure adults. But on the way to adulthood, how do we foster a secure sense of self, and a secure attachment, while encouraging secure sleep? There is no one right answer. There are many approaches, and ultimately, each family has to find what will work best for them.
Here’s my take on this complex and challenging issue:
The more you trust that your baby can find their own way into sleep, the easier it is for your baby to do just that. This is not meant to make you feel guilty about being worried about this! Just know that if you are ambivalent or unsure and anxious, the more likely it will be that your baby will feel that, and have a harder time letting go. So, do what you can to get clear in yourself about how you want to support your baby with this process. You don’t have to leave a baby to cry for them to learn the skills needed to settle into sleep in their own way. But you do need to be clear in your message to your baby, and then have a consistent plan for how the process will go.
Acknowledge feelings. It is one of the hardest things for us parents to do, but when we allow our children to express all their feelings, we give them room to work through them. Knowing that separation is hard for babies, and letting your baby know that you understand, helps them feel heard, which in turn allows them to let go more easily into sleep.
Separation anxiety is a cyclical issue. It shows up, often around 8/9 months, and then again every few months as your baby goes through major developmental changes (walking, talking, teething, daycare, or preschool, illness, travel, arrival of siblings, sleep overs, etc...). It is not something that is done, but a feeling that comes back many times until your baby/toddler/child is able to manage the feeling.
Not all children feel anxious about separating and settling into sleep. It hits some kids harder than others. There are many reasons for this. Temperament plays a part. So does how easily your child transitions from one activity to another. Consistent routines are also a factor. If your child isn’t sure what is coming next, they may feel more anxious about letting you go.
What can you do to help your child feel safe and secure when letting go to sleep?
Create predictable, consistent sleep time routines. You want your child to know that it is sleeping time, even if they get upset as you start to get them ready.
Let your child know when you are leaving and when you will be back. Even if your child is a baby, you want to talk to them in a soothing, calm tone, and let them know what is coming next. Don’t be sneaky. Even if it means your child will cry, you want to let them know you are leaving and you will be back.
Tell your child they are safe. If you believe it, they will feel it.
Build trust by letting your child express all their feelings. Don’t be in too big of a hurry to shush an upset child. Be there for them. Hold space for their feelings. If you are not afraid of your child’s intense feelings, they won’t be either.
Give your child time to try and settle themselves into sleep without you doing the work of getting them there. You can sit nearby, but try to let them figure out how to let go. If you are too involved in the process, they will continue to look to you to get them back to sleep when they wake. Do less and let them do more (this is in reference to a baby older than 3 months. A newborn needs support in settling. Once they are no longer swaddled and have room to move, you can do less to help them settle).
Spend time during the day being present for, and playing with your child. Time spent playing, cuddling, talking, singing, being silly, will fill your child’s emotional cup and make it easier for them to let you go when it is time for sleep.
For toddlers, you want to be sure to set loving, but firm limits for them so they know what to expect. If your toddler has too much say about when and where they sleep, they can feel less secure. You are the parent, and even though they may push against limits set, they will feel more secure knowing you are in charge.
For babies 9 months and older, you can offer a lovey for them to sleep with. You don’t want to put anything in your baby’s crib when they are younger than 9 months, but at that point it might help provide some comfort when they are settling to sleep and when they wake during the night. Be sure it is not a big blanket, or a really small stuffed animal, and be sure there isn’t anything that can be pulled (or chewed) off.
Helping your child work through their separation anxiety can be challenging for both you and your child. Let me know if I can support you as you support your little one with this important developmental process.
Disclaimer: Elizabeth Green's Early Parenting Sleep Consultations and written materials are for educational purposes only and are not meant as medical advice. All spoken and written information is to be used at each parents' discretion.