As your baby reaches 6 months, many parents are feeling a little more confident, the newborn fog is clearing and your child is taking small steps towards independence. Perhaps you can grab a shower or make some food while they play for short periods under a play mat. Then overnight your baby changes, and they no longer to be put down or left alone for a single moment. Welcome to separation anxiety!
Read on to find out more about the development behind separation anxiety and my top 5 tips for coping.
What is separation anxiety?
Children grow and develop so quickly during the first year of life and each change can come along so quickly. One change that often takes parents by surprise is their ability to suddenly miss you.
At around 6-8 months of age, babies start to understand that a person or an object continues to exist even when they cannot be seen, heard or otherwise sensed.
This leads to separation anxiety because they now have the ability to miss you!
Babies can go through phases of separation anxiety off and on throughout the early years – there’s no set pattern as to when it may occur, although it is likely to be heightened during the transition into childcare.
Leaving your baby at bedtime is likely to be the time of day when separation anxiety is at it’s strongest. Understandably, they realise you are about to leave, and they may do everything they can to stop this from happening! Helping your baby establish this area of development is key to easing separation anxiety as quickly as possible. This includes playing peek-a-boo games with your baby, and practice short bouts of separation (such as nipping out of sight briefly) to build up your baby’s trust that you will return.
Number 1: Avoid sneaking out!
Imagine someone you love instantly vanishing from the face of the Earth? That’s exactly how it feels to your child when you are there one moment and gone the next, and why sneaking out only heightens their anxiety because they haven’t actually seen you leave. Your baby is going to miss you, and likely cry at first, regardless of how you leave. But looking at the longer term scenario, if they start to build up the understanding of seeing you walk away, crucially they will also start to understand that you come back.
Number 2: Have a goodbye ritual
Children feel safe when they can detect patterns and so by knowing the routine when you leave, they will be able to link this to when you eventually return too. It doesn’t have to be complex – just 2-3 short cues that signal that you are leaving is enough. At bedtime this could be that once the lights are lowered/off, you sing a song, have a cuddle, tuck them in and say goodnight. When leaving them to go out or to work, a simple kiss, cuddle and phrase such as “Mummy/Daddy will be back at dinnertime, I can’t wait to see you later. Love you, goodbye.” is enough. As your child gets older you will be able to talk about the positive aspects of when you return, rather than them focussing on the negatives of you leaving. So at bedtime you might discuss what fun adventures await the next day, and it can be a great distraction at a time when they already feeling anxious.
Number 3: Always check back in
Similar to number 2, children love to know what’s coming so it’s always worth checking back in on them if they are upset that you’ve left at bedtime. If your child is used to being left, they will cope with you out of the room, but you may have to go back in to see them a little more frequently than you usually do. For a baby or toddler that has never been left to self settle, then during a phase of separation anxiety is not the ideal time to do any sort of sleep training where you leave the room. Either wait until it has passed, or try a gentler, more gradual technique.
If you are within earshot, you can also try talking to them or making enough noise so that they know you are still around. Learning to be comforted by hearing you as well as seeing you can be useful in a variety of situations throughout the younger years such as when your baby cries whilst you nip to the loo, or to comfort your toddler who doesn’t want to be left alone at bedtime.
Number 4: Don’t linger
It may be just as emotional for you to leave, but try not to draw out the process of leaving, it will only make it more painful. If you know the inevitable is coming, you may as well skip straight to leaving once you have announced or made any gestures that you about to do so. Try not to prolong any cues that signal you are leaving well before you are actually ready to go, such as picking up your coat and keys, or putting them in their sleeping bag too early if you usually do that right before they are going into the cot. Once you do start those cues, keep it brief, stick to your goodbye ritual and leave.
Number 5: Keep your emotions hidden
This is one of the only times it will be beneficial to your child if you DON’T show them how you’re feeling! Babies and young children look to us to assess a situation and work out how to react, whether that be to laugh, cry and so on. This mirroring of our behaviour is crucial to their emotional intelligence and it’s great for that to mostly be truthful so that they see a whole range of emotions as they grow and learn. But in the midst of separation anxiety, your child needs reassurance that everything is ok even when you leave, and they will search for this all over your face and body language! So although incredibly tough to do, try to stay calm and matter of fact…even if you break down once you’re out of sight!
Separation anxiety can be tough at times to get through but it usually passes in a few weeks and there’s lots that you can do to ease their anxiety whilst you are in the full throes. If you’re struggling with your little and need some more tips on how to improve sleep either during or after a phase of separation anxiety, get in touch for a free 15 minute assessment call to see how we can help. You can also check out the new FREE RESOURCES page for our downloadable guides.
Blogged by Emma, owner of HushaBoo and Mum to Davey, who has definitely been through several phases of separation anxiety! Follow me below for more blogs, updates and advice on all things sleep and parenting.