Separation Anxiety. Well isn’t that a fun set of words? Yeah, I didn’t think so. Let’s break this down… Separation=apart from, usually in this case, the parent. Anxiety=worry or fear. Most parents that say these two words to me are reporting that their child is experiencing separation anxiety at bedtime and want to know what to do about it. My answer to this question depends on the situation. If this is an out of the norm occurrence, meaning your child doesn’t usually have separation anxiety at other times of the day then there is a big part of me that says what you are seeing is not separation anxiety. True separation anxiety should present itself in many different circumstances, not just bedtime.
One of two things may be happening. First, consider the possibility that your child is overtired. This is the most common reason for behavior that often gets misinterpreted as separation anxiety. If this is the case, re-prioritize sleep for your little dreamer. Get them to bed about 15 minutes earlier than normal and see how that impacts bedtime. If it isn’t overtiredness then there is a good chance your toddler is simple testing boundaries at bedtime. They are fighting sleep, and seeing what they can do to get the rules to change. And if their fight is good enough and it keeps you in the room longer, they may very well keep this fight up! And that my friends will lead to an overtired toddler or what appears to be worsening separation anxiety. Also consider your bedtime routine. A consistent bedtime routine from night to night will empower your baby because they will know what is coming and what to expect. If your routine changes frequently or you don’t have one your child may be resisting bedtime out of confusion.
Here are a couple questions to ask yourself if you are trying to decide if your child or toddler is experiencing true separation anxiety:
Is your child exhibiting these behaviors at other times of the day when you leave? True separation anxiety is anxiety anytime the baby or toddler is not with that caretaker. If your baby is okay with Grandma but not with bedtime it’s not separation anxiety.
How is your child’s mood throughout the day while with you? If your child isn’t getting enough sleep their mood will suffer. Now keep in mind, it’s a toddlers job to have some meltdowns and tantrums but you know your child and will be able to tell if it is more than normal.
Does your child fight other routines or boundaries? This can also be a sign of an overtired child. When we (adults too) aren’t getting enough sleep we can become really difficult to work with.
How consistent are you with routine and boundaries? Consistency helps your toddler and baby feel empowered in their day. If your bedtime routines aren’t consistent you may have a child who doesn’t feel secure in the process for bedtime and not necessarily separation anxiety.
Do tantrums result in your child getting what they want? Or do you stick with the boundary? If tantrums work, why wouldn’t your child continue to use them at bedtime in order to not go to sleep? Some kiddos just aren’t fans of going to sleep.
Are you having increased nighttime wakeups, short naps or early morning wakeups? These are all signs of an overtired child. Overtiredness
is the worst! If this is your child, you’ll want to check out this post that processes how to recover from this overtiredness.
Does your toddler wake up happy from sleeping? This is a good sign that your child is well rested.
Does your child struggle to go to other attachment figures? While preferences are normal for babies and toddlers, consistent and excessive struggling when away from their preferred caretaker can be a sign of separation anxiety.
What if you are dealing with true separation anxiety, then what do you do?
First, it is more common for anxiety in general to come out for your child at certain developmental milestones. You baby will show signs of clinginess around 10-18 months. Remember that while this feels like a step back, it is in fact progress in your child’s development. In short, their world is expanding, their knowledge and comprehension is expanding and for the time being they are more cautious as they get used to this and may cling just a little tighter to you. Whether your child is experiencing some short term clinginess or if it appears that your child has long term separation anxiety, these tips will help you and your child grow, learn, and eventually to leave the anxiety world behind.
First, be honest and clear with your child anytime you leave them no matter your child’s age. Talk with them about going to the bathroom or going out for the night. Tell your child (regardless of if you think your child can understand you) where you are going and how long you will be gone, and what the plan is while you are away. Then come back. I am serious. Don’t sneak out. Don’t lie and say you will be back in 5 min when you plan to be back in an hour. Be honest and follow through. Yes it will be harder at first. And yes it will also be worth it because our end goal isn’t to have a night away. Our end goal is for your child to be confident and comfortable in a variety of circumstances and people as their trust in you grows.
Next, be okay with some struggle. Anxiety tells us we are scared or we can’t do it, whatever it is. The truth is we can! But we won’t ever know that if someone constantly prevents us from being able to struggle a little bit and to actually get to do it on our own. I get it, as a parent I want to prevent any struggle for my children. I hate to see them struggle! I hate it so much that I am willing to do whatever they hate just so they don’t have to experience it. But who is that helping? Me. It’s helping me (by not having to see them struggle) and hurting them (by preventing their progression). Instead, step back just a bit and see what they can do on their own. There will always be times as the parent when you will know when to step in and help. Please don’t misinterpret this. Follow your gut.
This process can go quickly or slowly. Depending on where your child falls on the spectrum it may look like stepping out of the room for only a few seconds before returning or leaving for the night. Stay consistent, always communicating with your child what you are doing and always reuniting after the designated time.
For me personally, sleep training has been one way to nip any separation anxiety in the butt. Sleep training has allowed each of my children to feel comfortable and confident on their own for a period of time. They learn that they can do it! It also strengthens their trust in me. When sleep training I lay them down for the night and tell them I will be back, either to feed them or in the morning. And then I always come back. Always. My children have learned to trust this and not fear it. Going to bed has become an enjoyable part of their routine and having some alone time in their crib has been rejuvenating for us all. Sleep training isn’t for everyone,
but I found the connection interesting and wanted to share that here.
If you are struggling it may be time to get some help! As a marriage and family therapist and baby sleep consultant I will be able to talk this through with you, ask the right questions, and find the right answer with you! Click here to check out my sleep consultation! And if you still aren’t sure you can schedule your free discovery call (just scroll to the bottom here to schedule) and I will help you decide if I can help!