Helping your child overcome separation anxiety
Separation anxiety can cause sleep problems in young children, but there are ways to overcome it, writes sleep expert Lucy Wolfe
Separation anxiety can have a huge impact on your child's ability to sleep well at the various stages of their development, but it will typically peak within the first few years of life. The first time it may emerge is at some point within the second part of the first year; around 6-10 months or thereabouts. This can typically coincide with a mother's return to work and a transition to day care, which can often heighten this stage. It is very normal for parents to experience a significant amount of sleep disturbances from an otherwise established sleeper during this developmental stage, represented by frequent night awakenings requiring reassurance and short napping throughout the day.
Within the first six months, an infant has no 'object permanence', meaning that when something is there, they are aware of it, but as soon as it is removed, they don't remember it. This is why a lot of young children can be passed around to different adults without objection and take such enjoyment from games like 'peek a boo'. However, a typical developing child will start to have increased anxiety as their social awareness develops and before their memory has caught up, around 6-10 months. This can lead to them to 'making strange', which is a great sign that your child is reaching their developmental milestones - in this case, developing a greater sense of individuation from you.
As with all aspects of parenting, this developmental stage comes with its own challenges. However, there are lots of strategies for you to help your child manage this stage throughout the early years.
Your infant and separation anxiety and sleep
You may start to notice that your baby clings to you and cries when you try to leave the room or when you try to leave him/her with a childminder. It can emerge from nowhere - one day your child is fine, the next not so.
Separation anxiety, at this age, can lead to a poor napping schedule and numerous night-time awakenings. Sleep is probably the biggest difficulty and a child in the throes of separation anxiety will not want to be left alone!
Your toddler and separation anxiety and sleep
Separation anxiety will typically come and go throughout the toddler years, most often observed around 18 months and again at two years, and in each instance, potentially compounding a sleep regression stage.
At this time, sleep can again fall apart around nap, bedtimes and overnight, manifesting as full-on temper tantrums and resistance to sleep.
Parents should be responsive and loving with their children during these times, but also mindful to avoid creating poor sleep supports that may remain long after the separation anxiety has passed.
Solutions for separation anxiety and sleep disturbances
1Increase daytime attention, focusing on spending sincere, one-to-one time with your child that involves plenty of physical and eye contact and to help your child feel 'connected' to you. Specialists recommend that twenty minutes of one-to-one, face-to-face time, exclusive with your child, allowing floor time led by your child, without distractions such as phones and computers, is a magic opportunity for attachment. During the first stages of separation anxiety, a young child may also be discovering how to move away from you and you want to ensure that they feel safe to roam and that you remain a secure base for them.
2Practise lots of 'peek-a-boo', 'Jack in the box' and covering items up with blankets, for example, helping your child learn how things can disappear and reappear also, like when you go away.
3Avoid ever sneaking away from your child. Although sometimes difficult to experience the upset, it is important that you always say goodbye, so that you don't heighten their fears and cause extra uncertainty, by slipping away when it is safe and you are unseen. Walk away with confidence and without fear and anxiety of your own to avoid them picking up on this. Practise going away and returning within your house for a while. Go down to your child's level and tell them you are going to check/get something and quite quickly return, demonstrating that although you go away, you always return.
4Avoid always picking your child up when they look to come into your arms. Again, come down to their level and engage with them on the floor or play mat.
5It can be worthwhile allowing an older child a small photo book of the family to keep with him, or even a post-it note with your kiss lipsticked onto it for his pocket. I would often advise large pictures of mum and dad in the bedroom, next to the bed to help with their anxiety.
6Consider introducing a transitional object such as a safe, breathable blanket for young children and perhaps a safe stuffed toy of choice for an older child... a cute mummy bear or doll for him/her to look after and vice versa.
7Lengthen your bedtime routine by as much as 15 minutes to factor in some extra time together. Allow for lots of bonus cuddles, hugs and holding to help with the transition to sleep time, when you will need to leave the room.
8To help lessen anxiety at sleep time, you will need to overcompensate during non-sleep time. You may need to spend lots of waking time in their bedroom, to help bridge the gap between the separation that is sleep and to void room anxiety.
9Overnight, consider the use of a dim night light, so that when your child briefly awakens during the night, they are not in the pitch black and not able to realise they are 'okay' without having to call on you
10Don't mistake separation anxiety for over-tiredness or ongoing inappropriate sleep associations. Manifestations of separation anxiety will be present during the day time when you are trying to leave for example, not just at bedtime and overnight.
11Don't start a sleep learning process if you believe that your child is experiencing separation anxiety. Allow the stage to pass and then consider an appropriate approach to help your child learn how to sleep well.
Lucy Wolfe, CGSC, MAPSC, is a paediatric sleep consultant and mum of four young children. She runs a private sleep consulting practice where she provides knowledge, expertise and support to families across the country. See www.sleepmatters.ie; t: 087 2683584 or e: firstname.lastname@example.org