5 Proven Ways to Deal with Separation Anxiety in Toddlers and Babies
So, you’ve experienced separation anxiety! And you may be at a loss as to what happened. The first time it happens, it takes you by surprise. Your baby that never had issues being held by anyone starts to care who’s holding them. They start to notice that you left the room, and they let you know about it, very loudly. You probably can’t even go use the restroom in peace because your child is wailing on the other side of the door. You’re probably wondering, “Where did I go wrong? Why is this happening?”
The good news – it’s not you. The bad new, separation anxiety is here to stay to a little while. And it may impact more than one area of your child’s life, including their sleep.
What Causes Separation Anxiety in Babies and Toddlers
Separation anxiety is simply part of growing up. Your baby’s brain is developing and beginning to be more tuned to their surroundings. And so they begin to notice when their caregiver is gone. But they have no sense of time, so they don’t know if their caregiver will come back. And nothing is more distressing to a helpless infant than ending up without their caregiver.
Separation anxiety in babies and toddlers is not a disorder, but a normal stage of development. And just because your child experiences separation anxiety, it is by no means an indicator of them being prone to it as adults. Separation anxiety typically starts around 9 months, but can certainly develop as early as 4 months or as late as 15 months. And the reason separation anxiety occurs is tied to the concept of object permanence.
Object permanence means that the baby is aware that an object exists, even if it’s out of sight. That’s why games like “peek-a-boo” or hiding a toy behind your back brings the baby so much delight. And this amazing development also creates separation anxiety because the baby now knows that mom is not gone forever, if she’s out of sight. So the baby cries in order to encourage mom to come back.
While it’s very disturbing to hear your baby cry and tempting to come back and never ever leave them, it’s not a good solution. It’s important to remember that while baby may be in short distress while the parent is leaving, the distress passes, and doesn’t leave any lasting psychological damage. In fact, the act of returning teaches the baby that even though their caregiver may be gone for now, they always come back to them.
Remember that while most separation anxiety begins in the first year of life, it often stretches well into toddlerhood. That’s why it may be very distressing for you and your toddler to start preschool. Your toddler will likely cry and cling to you for at least the first few weeks of school. And this emotional display will make you question whether you made the right decision by sending them off to school so early. And the truth is that as long as the school is treating your child with empathy and understanding, it is absolutely the right decision. No matter how old your child will be at the start of school, they will likely experience distress in the beginning. So just be prepared for that.
Make sure you are empathetic towards your child’s feelings, but are not indulging them. In fact, the more you indulge them, the worse the anxiety is going to get. And that’s not a good situation for anyone. So deal with your own separation anxiety when you’re away from your child. They should not be feeding off your emotions and become even more distressed.
Ways to Help Your Child Cope with Separation Anxiety
While you can’t make your child get over separation anxiety, there are ways to make this period in their life easier.
- Prepare for transitions. For a young baby make sure you narrate what you are doing in a calm voice. Something like “Mommy is going to go to the store for a short time, and then she’ll be back” is sufficient. Then get all your stuff ready before you say your final good bye. For a toddler, narrating and preparing them for a transition may or may not be a good approach. For some kids, hearing that you are going to leave, will send them into panic prematurely, and you won’t be able to get ready in peace. (I know that my son is one of those kids, so I don’t ever give him warnings). In those situations, just calmly get everything ready for yourself, and act like nothing different is happening. For a child who likes being prepared, make sure to talk to them and tell them that you’re leaving and that you will be back after a certain period of time.
- Make the transition as short and uneventful as possible. First, you have to mentally prepare yourself for the fact that there will be tears, and you need to be OK with that. Now that you are prepared, lean down, give a quick hug and kiss, and say bye. Your child will cry, scream, try to grab on to you, but you just need to ignore that and leave. Make sure that the caregiver who is staying with your child has all the necessary instructions for your absence before you leave. This will help shorten the difficult transition and eliminate having to talk over a screaming child.
- Distract. Sometimes, no matter how short and uneventful you try to make your departure, your child is still going to throw a giant tantrum. In such cases, it might be easier to have the caregiver who is staying with them take the child in a different room, and engage them in play while you leave. When the child is the one that left the room first, your absence might not truly register with them, and the separation will go much smoother. As long as your unannounced departure doesn’t make your child more anxious, there is no harm in doing this until your child is fine staying with the caregiver.
- Make sure the caregiver who stays with them does not contribute to the separation anxiety. By that I mean that the caregiver does not harp on the child’s emotional response. The caregiver needs to be able to comfort the child and refocus them on a fun activity. Maybe there is a special toy or game that the child only plays with when this caregiver is present. Anything that builds trust, comfort level, and is fun for the child should be employed by the caregiver.
- Don’t linger or bring attention to how distressing the transition was. Let’s be honest, these transitions are not only hard on the child, but can also be difficult on the parent. The first time we leave our baby with a babysitter or our toddler at school is anxiety provoking to us parents as well. We can most certainly screw up, and make separation anxiety worse by lingering too long and comforting the child too much. Just give a quick kiss and hug and trust your caregiver. They will take care of it. Most likely within a few minutes of you leaving your child will calm down and be happy.
Separation Anxiety and Sleep Issues in Toddlers
As I mentioned before, separation anxiety can impact your toddler’s sleep. The most likely time for these regressions to happen are around 18 months and 2 years. While there are some things you can do to make this time a little easier, just as with all regressions, you just have to ride them out. Which I know is not comforting to a sleep deprived parent.
In order to minimize separation anxiety at bedtime, make sure to follow my suggestions for separation anxiety throughout the day. It will go a long way in helping at night time as well.
Specifically for nighttime make sure you have a good bedtime routine in place. It should be calming, relaxing, and connecting for you and your child. Then when your child wakes up in the middle of the night, do go to them. Don’t let them just scream the whole time. It will not help with their separation anxiety. Go in, quickly comfort, lay them back down, and tell them you’re going back to bed.
Yes, you may need to visit their room multiple times a night for a few weeks straight. And yes, it’s maddening and exhausting. But just keep in mind that it will end, and you all will go back to sleeping.
I hope this helps you deal with separation anxiety in a way that makes life easier for everyone. Share any other tips and tricks that helped your child with separation anxiety in the comments section.
Quote of the Day
I felt abandoned – watching my mum leave me with strangers. I’ll never forget that feeling. Then I had very happy years at school. – Claire Sweeney
Mental Health Tip of the Day
In order to greatly reduce your anxiety about leaving your child, make sure you are leaving them with a caregiver you trust. We all have heard and read many horror stories that make us never want to leave our children but that is not healthy. So make sure you have done your due diligence in order to have peace of mind.