Separation Anxiety at Night: What You Need to Know and Ways to Cope

Does your child become upset every time you leave the room or during sleep times? Separation anxiety often occurs as part of the normal emotional development of your baby. This stage usually corresponds with the understanding that people and things exist even when your baby can't see them. It can also occur at night, which can be challenging for parents. Read on to learn how to deal with your baby's separation anxiety at night from our Serenity Sleepers' pediatric occupational therapist. as well as ways to cope while fostering independent sleep skills.


separation anxiety babies and toddlers

Babies begin to develop relationships with those around them from birth.


Statements like "AS BABIES GROW AND ENTER TODDLERHOOD, NIGHT WAKINGS LIKELY START TO DIMINISH ON THEIR OWN. THIS HAPPENS WHEN A CHILD FEELS SAFE AND SECURE IN THEIR RELATIONSHIPS AND IN THEIR SLEEP SPACE…” can often feel damaging to a parent who views their relationship with their toddler to be strong and yet they are not sleeping independently. And guess what, it's wrong and I'll explain why.


Attachment is a clinical term used to describe "a lasting psychological connectedness between human beings” (Bowlby, 1997). This attachment begins to form early in a child’s life and is fostered by caregivers being attentive to their baby’s needs. Around 𝟔-𝟖 𝐦𝐨𝐧𝐭𝐡𝐬 a child begins to show a 𝐬𝐭𝐫𝐨𝐧𝐠 𝐚𝐭𝐭𝐚𝐜𝐡𝐦𝐞𝐧𝐭 to their primary caregivers. Babies start to develop separation anxiety during this phase and can become upset when their caregiver leaves, even for short periods (Bowlby, 1997)


During this period we work on helping little ones foster a sense of independence through 𝐜𝐨𝐚𝐜𝐡𝐢𝐧𝐠 of self-regulation skills in order to build secure and confident toddlers. When caregivers react sensitively to ease their child’s distress and help them regulate their emotions, it has a positive impact on the child’s neurological, physiological and psychosocial development (Howe, 2011). This foundation of self-regulation skills will encourage the development of independent problem solving skills, which are needed for expanded cognitive development. Children with secure attachments are more likely to develop emotional intelligence, good social skills and robust mental health (Howe, 2011).


Young children who have formed secure attachments with their parents and caregivers can display this skill in a variety of predictable behaviors:

  • proximity maintenance – wanting to be near their primary caregiver

  • safe haven - returning to their primary caregiver for comfort and safety if they feel afraid or threatened

  • secure base – treating their primary caregiver as a base of security from which they can explore the surrounding environment. The child feels safe in the knowledge that they can return to their secure base when needed

  • separation distress - experiencing anxiety in the absence of their primary caregiver. They are upset when their caregiver leaves, but happy to see them and easily comforted when they return

(Ainsworth et al, 2015)


The phases of separation anxiety develop for a multitude of developmental reasons:


𝐎𝐛𝐣𝐞𝐜𝐭 𝐏𝐞𝐫𝐦𝐚𝐧𝐞𝐧𝐜𝐞:

The realization that objects continue to exist and can be retrieved even when out of sight developments around 6-8 months. Infants actively implement searching for an attractive object that they have just been shown but which has then been hidden behind a cloth. For many developmental psychologists, this search behavior is theorized to signal the onset of a more sophisticated level of representation or a more active type of memory than that associated with object identity for which 3-month-olds demonstrate competence (Daehler, 2008).


𝐆𝐫𝐞𝐚𝐭𝐞𝐫 𝐂𝐨𝐧𝐜𝐞𝐩𝐭 𝐨𝐟 𝐓𝐢𝐦𝐞 & Social Referencing:

Our little ones are highly intuitive meaning they are capable of generating information without using a known logical or rational process and will act accordingly. Children depend upon us to co-regulate, meaning managing emotions throughout the day. Around at 9-10 months, babies begin to social reference others for emotional expression as a source of information to clarify uncertain events (A. Scher & J. Harel, 2008). Emotions around learning to sleep are no different. If we are entering nap and bedtime with high emotions, even when we are trying to hide it, our little ones will sense it!


At 12-18 months, our new toddlers are beginning to foster more independence, which displays as extra confidence and sense of self, resulting in greater protests when you leave. Toddlers are also able to begin piecing together the normal events of the day, which can help them anticipate times when you will be separated, such as naps and bedtime. A regular routine, where the child is able to practice some independence, will help decrease the stress response associated with the parent leaving the room, especially during sleep times, as it helps prepare the mind and body for a night of relaxing sleep.


Around 𝟏𝟖+ 𝐦𝐨𝐧𝐭𝐡𝐬 children are likely to become less dependent on their primary caregiver, particularly if they feel secure and confident the caregiver will return and be responsive in times of need (Bowlby, 1997). Their newly established independent skills they have been practicing will lend themselves to new skills, such as independent dressing, feeding, and potty training.


𝐒𝐞𝐩𝐚𝐫𝐚𝐭𝐢𝐨𝐧 𝐚𝐧𝐱𝐢𝐞𝐭𝐲, 𝐚𝐭 𝐢𝐭𝐬 𝐜𝐨𝐫𝐞, 𝐢𝐬 𝐚 𝐬𝐢𝐠𝐧 𝐨𝐟 𝐭𝐡𝐞

𝐮𝐧𝐬𝐡𝐚𝐤𝐞𝐚𝐛𝐥𝐞 𝐛𝐨𝐧𝐝 𝐭𝐡𝐚𝐭 𝐲𝐨𝐮 𝐚𝐧𝐝 𝐲𝐨𝐮𝐫 𝐛𝐚𝐛𝐲 𝐬𝐡𝐚𝐫𝐞.


So how do we help our little ones handle separation anxiety during the daytime so they are able to sleep peacefully in the night?

  1. Cuddle and comfort your little one often during wake times. Foster secure attachment by spending time holding and cuddling the infant each day, and comfort them when they are afraid or upset.

  2. Practice brief separations; however, do not sneak away. Practice leaving the baby in a safe place before going into another room. Return after a brief separation. This teaches the baby that their caregiver can go away, but will still come back. Also explain to your little one that you are leaving but will return, along with a timeline. When doing this, be specific so that the child knows exactly when to expect a return. For example, a caregiver could say, “I will be back after your nap to take you home.”

  3. Play games to encourage separation, such as peek-a-boo and then later hide-and-seek, as they are great at fostering improved separation. Take turns with your child as this will help them understand that things unseen still exist and will come back.

  4. Foster independence with regular routines by allowing your babies and toddlers to explore away from you, while maintaining supervision from nearby. This will help them develop independence on their terms, and help them understand that it is safe to do so. A regular routine provides a reliable and stable pattern to the day. Routine is important for children, as it provides consistency and reduces the stress of the unknown.

  5. Keep separation times happy and upbeat, as remember your child is co-regulating with you and your emotions directly affect theirs. Lingering separations will only cause emotions to escalate.

Separation anxiety in babies is a normal part of their development, and one they usually grow out of as they get older. Connection, communication, and play all help foster a sense of security. Being consistent and sticking to routines can not only help your children during the day but also during sleep times. Need additional help fostering quality, independent sleep? Schedule your discovery call today.


pediatric development and sleep consultant

Bailey Garcia, MOT, OTR/L is a trained and licensed Occupational Therapist since 2011 who has dedicated her career to the field of pediatrics. Having served in many different settings, Bailey has gained a vast knowledge of childhood development and ways to facilitate growth through the usage of practical play skills. She is passionate about helping parents generate ideas and find information to help make child development (& sleep) less of a mystery.


Nashville certified sleep consultant


References:

Bowlby, John (1997) Attachment and loss. Volume 1: attachment. London: Pimlico.

Howe, David (2011) Attachment across the lifecourse: a brief introduction. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan

Ainsworth M.D. et all (2015) Patterns of attachment: a psychological study of the strange situation. New York: Psychology Press

M.W. Daehler, in Encyclopedia of Infant and Early Childhood Development, 2008

A. Scher, J. Harel, in Encyclopedia of Infant and Early Childhood Development, 2008

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