separation anxiety

Separation Anxiety and Sleep

Mommin’ ain’t easy. Yup, this whole motherhood/parenthood thing is hard. It is a high-stakes game, where the outcome seems to depend on every little decision you make. With social media and Dr. Google, it is incredibly easy to access information about anything and everything parenting. It’s no surprise that parents feel overwhelmed, not good enough, and terrified about making mistakes. 

As a Baby Sleep Consultant, I see this anxiety, fear, and stress, in parents whose babies are not sleeping well. Plus, the symptoms of sleep deprivation that come along with the lack of sleep from a baby not sleeping well don’t help anyone. When you are so exhausted you can’t think straight, you feel like you are literally losing your mind and you see your work, social, and family life suffering it makes that sense of “I’m doing something wrong” all the more prevalent in parents’ minds. 

Add in Separation Anxiety

Add in the normal childhood development stage of separation anxiety, and it can be a recipe for some intense mom guilt and overwhelming feelings of anxiety. Separation anxiety is the oh-so-fun part of your child’s life when they start to completely flip out like the world is ending whenever Mommy isn’t around. 

The thought process would appear seems to be something along the lines of:

  • Mommy’s not in the room. 
  • Therefore, Mommy is somewhere else. 
  • I would prefer to be there with her. 
  • Make that happen, or I swear on my most favorite stuffed animal’s life that I will raise the most unpleasant, unimaginable ruckus ever. 

It is pretty unpleasant, and it is no wonder that those ruckuses leave us, as parents, wondering what we did wrong. Especially, if god-forbid, this ruckus happens in a public place where we feel the eyes of everyone in the vicinity watching us, with what we assume is judgment of our parenting skills. 

We all want our kids to be well-adjusted so that they feel reasonably safe when they are separated from us, their parents, for a little while. Add in the mom sharing (or shaming) you see basically everywhere, (like that one mom in your moms’ Facebook group that is constantly sharing (bragging?) about how her baby plays for hours at a time by herself while mom gets to relax on the couch with her hot coffee) and it is no wonder many of us moms feel this sense of terror about our parenting skills.

Two things to keep in mind about separation anxiety

First, never compare yourself or your little one to other moms and their kiddos. Especially those you see on social media. We all know we only share our highlight reel on there, so stop comparing your real life with someone else’s highlight reel. Seriously, stop it now! (I know this is easier said than done, so I say this to not only encourage and remind you but to encourage and remind myself as well!)

Second, remember what I said above? About the normal childhood developmental stage of separation anxiety? The key word there is NORMAL. Yup, separation anxiety is normal, expected a sign of a healthy attachment between yourself and your little one.

What is separation anxiety?

Separation anxiety typically starts to occur around 6-8 months of age, when your little one starts to realize that things continue to exist, even when they’re not in sight. It’s a cognitive milestone known as “object permanence,” which is defined as, “the understanding that objects continue to exist even when they cannot be observed.”

In other words, out of sight no longer means out of mind.

As your baby begins to grasp this concept, they realize that if you, their favorite person in the whole world, are not there, you’re elsewhere. And, hey, wait a minute. If that’s the case, then you might not be coming back.

When you think about it like this, it is no surprise that the situation calls for a full-blown panic. After all, you are this little one’s favorite person in the whole wide world. Of course, not being sure if you will be back is pretty terrifying for them. 

When your little one starts to flip their lid when you leave the room, or try to leave them to play at the childcare gym, remember this: It’s normal, it’s natural, and it’s a sign that your little one is learning, and that they have a secure attachment to their parent. All of these things are pretty awesome! 

Separation anxiety and sleep

Sometimes I see separation anxiety also pop up at bedtime. It goes something like this:

  • You put your baby in bed, as you have been for months.
  • Baby’s new-found understanding of object permanence leads to a different response when you leave the room, compared to the previous months before. 
  • Baby has a full-on meltdown, and the smooth bedtime you are used to seems like it may be a thing of the past.

I see this pop up for parents, and naturally, they are a bit alarmed. Their sweet baby, who used to go to bed so easily and happily, is now screaming her head off. This can often lead to the derailing of the good sleep habits you have worked so hard to establish. The good news is that there are some things you can do to help you and your baby continue with those good sleep habits you both enjoy.

Managing sleep when separation anxiety strikes

1. Keep things consistent

Kids thrive on consistency. They want to know what to expect. Keep your bedtime routine consistent. Your child has begun to associate this routine with transitioning to sleep. Keep the routine the same as always, with the same number of stories, hugs, kisses, etc. as you usually do so that the routine continues to cue your child’s brain and body to be ready to sleep.

2. Reassure and remind them of how this works

I truly believe that our little ones understand a lot more than they let on to at this early age. Talk to them and let them know it is time to go to sleep and Mommy will be there to get them when they wake up in in the morning just like usual! 

3. Don’t avoid it

Even after offering reassurance, your child may still be nervous or upset as you leave. I still recommend you leave, just as you have been. I’m not saying you should just leave and let your child freak out about the possibility of never seeing Mommy again, I mean continue with your normal pattern of actions. 

4. Offer comfort and additional reassurance as needed

If your child is crying or upset, go check on him. Let him see that you will, in fact, be back, you didn’t disappear forever. With this new found awareness that things he cannot see still exist, help him learn to trust that even when he cannot see you, you are there to help comfort him when he needs you. 

Stay consistent with your responses, and keep them short. If you don’t want to sleep on your little one’s floor or have them in your bed with you long term, this isn’t a good time to start doing those things. Go in to offer comfort but leave again. You may have to do this a few times before he really starts to feel comfortable with the knowledge that you do come back!

5. Practice getting your child comfortable from being away from you during the day

Your little one follows your cues, so if you’re not willing to let her out of your sight, they likely, albeit unconsciously, feel like they’re not safe if you’re not in the room. Designate a room where they can explore a little and play without your direct supervision. 

It’s a small adjustment, but it has a tremendous effect – for bedtime, those heavenly solo-Target runs when Grandma is in town or when your neighbor comes to babysit while you and your partner get out on a much-needed kids-free date night! 

This is normal and it will pass

separation anxiety will pass

Remember, this is a normal stage of childhood development. Helping your kiddos feel reassured that even though you are not always available to be right there with them, you will always come back is beneficial for both you and your kids. Continue to build that secure attachment that will one day help your little ones leave the nest (but not too soon, of course!).  Keeping sleep on track during this stage will help everyone involved because better sleep leads to parents and kids being better able to manage emotions, think more clearly, and be more adaptable to changes. 

If you are in the boat that this oh-so-fun developmental milestone that caused your kiddos’ sleep habits get off track, please reach out. You can schedule a free evaluation call so I can learn more about what challenges you are now seeing so I can offer the best support and advice to get sleep back on track for you and your little one!

Cheers to healthy, happy sleep,

Bonnie

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