Separation anxiety in babies and children

August 26, 2020 4 mins read
Separation anxiety in babies and children

Getting your child to fall asleep and stay in bed is already a balancing act, but when you add separation anxiety into the mix, what little bedtime harmony there was, quickly disappears.

Take back control of bedtime by learning about separation anxiety at night; the symptoms that affect babies and children, and how to address the issue so that your child (and you) can get a better night’s rest.

What is separation anxiety?

From the age of about 8 months, babies begin to notice their surroundings and pick up on the comings and goings of their parents and the people they spend the most time with. It’s during this stage that they develop object permanence, which is when babies understand that when things or people disappear, they come back again.

Often, anxiety happens when babies and children are afraid to be left alone and can lead to them having difficulty sleeping by themselves at night.

What are the signs of separation anxiety at night?

Separation anxiety affects children and babies differently. Does your baby cry when you leave the room? If you’ve noticed that your child has become clingier than usual or that their sleeping pattern has changed, there are some things that you can do to help your child overcome their sleeping problems and ease their anxiety.

Symptoms in children

  • Extreme crying. Separation anxiety could cause your child to cry more than usual and at times, be inconsolable.
  • Staying close to parents. If you’ve left the house for an outing and your child refuses to leave your side, then this may be a sign that they feel anxious when separated from you.
  • Emotional temper tantrums. Out of the ordinary temper tantrums at bedtime mean that your child isn’t coping with sleeping alone and being separated from you.
  • Physical illness. Sometimes, separation anxiety can cause emotional distress that can physically manifest as headaches or throwing up.
  • Refusing to sleep alone. This is a telltale sign that a child is experiencing anxiety at night. Often, your child may ask to sleep with you or in the same room as you.
  • Nightmares. Waking up in the middle of the night from a bad dream could signal that your child is suffering from a sleep issue, which might be caused by separation anxiety.

Symptoms In babies

  • Crying. Separation anxiety can affect babies from 8 to 14 months old. They may cry and become upset and be visibly distressed when you leave a room, even for a short amount of time.
  • Increased clinginess. Once your baby begins to comprehend that bedtime means being left alone, they may physically cling onto you and not want to let go.
  • Resistance to being put down to bed. Many parents have experienced first hand how separation anxiety causes their babies to put up a fight and rebel against bedtime.
  • Waking up during the night. Frequently disturbed sleep and waking up at night could signal that your child may be experiencing anxiety at night.
  • Anxiety around strangers. Does your baby cry when another person holds them? This can even happen if they’re being held by someone familiar to them, like their grandparents.

How to ease your child’s separation anxiety at night

There are several ways to ease your child’s anxiety while at the same time, creating happy memories for them. Playing peek-a-boo with your baby can reinforce object permanence by helping them understand that people can leave and come back again. By playing with them when they are in their crib, they will learn to associate laughter and joy with their bed and will view it as a pleasant place to be in and to sleep in.

A goodbye ritual with hugs and kisses will help you and your child look forward to a reunion when they wake up. It will foster a stronger bond between you and your child as you work through their separation anxiety.

Keep your emotions in check. If you are concerned about your child’s sleep issue, the last thing you want to do is heighten their anxiety by displaying strong emotions, such as tearfulness, in front of them.

Should you leave your baby to cry at night?

The Ferber Method (also known as the Cry It Out method) is a sleep training strategy that uses controlled crying to help a child learn to sleep and self-soothe. Many parents who favour the No-Cry Method of sleep training consider controlled crying controversial. However, researchers have found that there is no difference between either method in the emotional or behavioral development of children. Ultimately it’s up to you as the parent to decide what is best for your baby.

How long does nighttime separation anxiety last?

It will come as a relief to you to learn that separation anxiety in babies and children gradually goes away and typically ends at three years old. It can still pop up throughout childhood, but by sticking to a bedtime routine, it will become easier to address. If you’re still concerned about your child’s anxieties about sleep, then consulting a doctor can provide you with the support you need.