Separation anxiety: the signs & what you can do.

Surprised toddler

Separation anxiety can exhibit itself in a few different ways, usually; periods of being clingy, getting upset when you are out of sight, a strong preference for one parent, tears when you leave them at nursery/with family, sleep resistance or calling for you during the night. I want to reassure you that this is really normal and really common.

Separation anxiety can appear at any age, but commonly parents first notice it around 6-8 months of age. This is when your baby realises that you are separate people – during the earlier months they aren’t aware of this. They come to realise that it’s really important that you look after them to keep them safe (think survival!). I promise you that your little one is not trying to manipulate you; this is a really normal part of developmental changes.

Separation anxiety can happen at any time – it could be that your little one is adjusting to pre-school, starting big school, a house move, a new sibling….You are their most trusted person so it can feel like they let it all go around you once you are reunited (the person who they feel safest with!).

It is also really common for sleep ‘dramas’ to happen when they are going through a period of separation anxiety. Separation anxiety can also be worse if your little one is hungry, under the weather or tired (another reason to work on improving sleep!).

My top tips:

  • Introduce a comforter or, for older ones, something of yours to look after. This can help them feel connected to you even when you aren’t there. For those little ones who don’t have a favourite toy you can let them choose which teddy to take to bed (this gives them some control over bedtime too).
  • Make sure that you are keeping up their changing nap and sleep needs – is your little one napping longer than they need? If so, it can often be the root cause of bedtime battles.
  • Foster attachments with other people – grandparents, nanny/childminder or close friends.
  • Don’t make any big changes during a period of separation anxiety (moving to their own room, potty training etc). If possible, wait until it has passed.
  • Spend 1:1 time with them as much as you are able – take time for play where you can give them your full attention and give them lots of praise, cuddles and reassurance. This can be as simple as reading extra stories together or taking 15 minutes to do a jigsaw. For older ones, let them lead the activity choice and choose how you play.
  • Don’t forget about yourself. Fill up your little one’s love tank, but make sure you take a break if you can.
  • Stick to your boundaries. While it can be tempted to give in to every demand from your pre-schooler, sometimes moving the goal posts isn’t helpful long term. We should always respond with love, but sometimes that means lovingly returning them to bed if they get out, or sticking to the 2 stories that you agreed on. You are not being mean to your child if you don’t.
  • Create quick goodbye rituals – if you are dropping them off at childcare or popping out, make sure they know you have left, that you are coming back and don’t linger.
  • Keep calm – it can be upsetting to see your little one distressed but we want to try and keep our emotions light and positive to help them know that there is nothing to worry about.
  • Games of peekaboo are a great way of teaching baby that you always come back.

Remember, this is a normal part of their development and you can support them through it with love, patience and consistency.

If you would like to learn more about how to help your little one form a predictable routine and improve the quality of their sleep, take a look at our online courses and get started today.

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