When separation anxiety starts to pop up with babies and toddlers, it can start to impact many aspects of daily life, including causing challenges and disruptions with sleep. Separation anxiety and sleep can be a challenging combination.
What is Separation Anxiety
If you have not heard about separation anxiety, it can be a bit alarming when all of a sudden you can’t leave the room for a moment without your baby or toddler getting very upset. Separation anxiety is a normal childhood development stage. It is an expected sign of healthy attachment.
Separation anxiety often peaks in the 8-10 month range and then around 18 months. This leads to it often being a contributing factor to what are commonly referred to as the ‘8-month sleep regression’ and the ‘18-month sleep regression’.
Why Separation Anxiety Develops
Around 8 months old, your baby is starting to understand object permanence. They now are able to remember things and people who are not currently present.
Being able to mentally picture you while you are gone can be difficult for your baby because babies learn about people leaving before learning about people returning. Because of this they may feel like they don’t know if or when you are going to return, leading to anxiety around separations. This includes the separation that takes place for sleep. (This separation is still present even if you are contact sleeping!) Hence why separation anxiety and sleep are not the most fun combination.
Then a peak in separation anxiety often occurs in the early toddler years, around 18-24 months old. This is because your toddler’s job is to explore their independence with you as a secure base to return to. As they continue to explore this independence more and further learn that they are a separate person from you, you not being there for them to return to immediately for connection and security, can feel uncomfortable and upsetting.
Of course, there are other times separation anxiety can pop up as well. Major changes in life can lead to feeling like they don’t know what to expect with those changes and they need the connection and security from you more frequently.
Separation Anxiety and Sleep
Here are some of the things you may see when separation anxiety starts impacting sleep.
More protest and difficulty falling asleep at bedtime
If you have been putting your baby or toddler down, leaving the room and they fall asleep easily and peacefully, this may shift. Now your little one is protesting and becoming upset either as you get ready to put them into their crib or as they see you leave the room.
Your baby can picture you even when you are not there and they would definitely prefer to be with you rather than in their crib going to sleep!
With your toddler, if they have not gotten their connection cup filled up enough it will be more difficult and upsetting for them to separate from you.
Your baby or toddler starts waking up at night again or wake ups become more frequent
I see this a bit less than difficulty at bedtime, but is definitely something that can pop up. All of a sudden you start seeing wake ups or more wake ups than you did previously. Your little one wakes up and is calling out wanting connection with you, making sure it is still available.
Becoming clingy and upset at the start of their bedtime or nap routine
Your little one knows that at the end of their routine the separation of sleep is coming. It is good for your baby or toddler to know what to expect and have consistent routines. However, it can be tough when they seem to start ‘hating’ it and making it a less enjoyable, soothing and connecting experience for both of you.
Handling Separation Anxiety
Help your baby learn about you returning. This will help separation anxiety decrease because they confidently know you will be back. Play lots of peekaboo during the day, so your baby gets used to having you come back after you leave.
You can also set your baby down for some independent play time and then come back to assist your baby as soon as they call to help them feel confident that you are always there when they need you.
Additionally, make sure that when you return it is an exciting and enjoyable moment. Be present and delight in your child to help them feel safe, secure and loved.
For young toddlers who are experiencing more intense separation anxiety, usually in the 18-24 month period, make sure you are providing dedicated, consistent and predictable one-on-one quality time with them each day. Even 20 minutes makes a big difference. You want to be fully present (mentally and emotionally) with your toddler. Allow them to direct the play and play in whatever capacity they invite you to play in. Delight in them, your time together and being able to learn about their world. It can make a huge difference!
You can also create special separating and reconnecting routines for when you leave and when you return. For example you give your toddler one hug, two kisses and three high fives before you leave and the opposite when you return. Having a little mantra you say before you leave and another when you return is another example.
Tips for Separation Anxiety and Sleep Challenges
Working on separation during the day is important but it doesn’t always immediately lead to things going back to normal at night. Going to sleep at bedtime is the longest separation of the day. Not only are babies and toddlers separating from you physically (assuming they are sleeping in a separate sleep space) but they are also separating from being fully aware and engaged in their surroundings.
Sleep is inherently a vulnerable process. You have to let go of your conscious awareness as you are falling asleep. This happens as neurotransmitters and a brain chemical called GABA decrease cell activity in arousal centers in our brain, the hypothalamus and brainstem. 
Teaching babies about returning so they feel confident knowing you will be back and making sure both baby and toddler’s connection cups are full before bed is very helpful. Keep in mind it is about quality time versus quantity of time. The bedtime routine is a great time to be fully present and be intentional about connecting with your little one.
When your baby or toddler becomes upset at bedtime or in the middle of the night once you leave, I recommend checking in and reassuring them you are there if they need you. These check ins can look different in terms of where you check in from, what type of reassurance offered, length of check ins and the time before and between check ins. These are different for different families based on your little one’s personality and temperament and your parenting style.
Can I Sleep Train When My Baby is Experiencing Separation Anxiety?
You may have a baby or a toddler who is experiencing separation anxiety but you are ready to get them sleeping independently (for whatever reasons are important to your family).
The short answer is generally ‘yes’. You can help your little one learn to sleep independently during the stage.
Unfortunately, separation anxiety can pop up at any time. In general, the right time to start sleep training (helping your little one learn the skills to fall asleep and stay asleep independently) is based on when the family overall is ready and a change is needed.
Additionally, when there is heightened separation anxiety during the day at the time you are starting to make changes to sleep, considering a method that is typically considered more gentle may be beneficial.
Before starting, consider these factors to determine the timing for starting:
- Make sure you are implementing the items mentioned under “Handling Separation Anxiety” above. This is an important step for preparing your little one for a big change related to sleep.
- Consider if there are any other big changes coming up. Things such as changing daycares or schools, moving up in a classroom at school, new nanny/caregiver, potty training, etc. (Generally, this applies to any situation, too!)
- Things such as having family or friends coming into town, traveling, or in general things that you know in advance will lead to not being able to be consistent in timing or location of sleep for your little one during their learning process. This applies to most situations, too, not just related to separation anxiety and sleep.
Navigating Normal Separation Anxiety and Sleep
This can be a tough and sometimes upsetting stage for parents and caregivers. Keep in mind that this is a normal, healthy sign of development and you are doing a great job!
If you and your baby or toddler have been sleeping well prior to this developmental stage, try to keep things with sleep on track as best as possible. Sleep helps us all better regulate our emotions. This can help us be able to continue to be a present, patient and attuned parent during the day. In turn, this can help get over the peak in separation anxiety for your baby or toddler.
If sleep is already a struggle, or becomes a struggle and you aren’t sure what to do, helping families like yours is what I do here at Sleep Love and Happiness Sleep Consulting. You can schedule a free call to chat through what is going on, your goals and how I can help you reach your goals!
Cheers to healthy, happy sleep,
***Updated July 2023***