As parents we want to ease separation anxiety for our little one as much as possible and when separation anxiety does show up there are ways we can help navigate and ease the distress by leading with calm and confidence.

This blog covers off tips on how to handle separation anxiety as well as steps to maintain your little one’s healthy sleep habits during this time.

You might be wondering when separation anxiety is most likely to occur?

With babies constantly developing, you often see separation anxiety begin at around 6-9 months which then peaks at around 15-18 months. The reason for this is that from 6 months the biological hardwiring for human connection is beginning to be understood.

This understanding is called object permanence whereby, they recognise something exists even when it’s no longer seen or heard.

But this isn’t the only time separation anxiety shows up. Which leads us to other times when separation anxiety might show up.

Causes of separation anxiety in babies or toddlers can be due to:

  • Sleep regressions – a temporary phase usually 2-4 weeks
  • The approach to wind down routines and settling techniques 
  • Your little one starting childcare or external care
  • A parent returning to work
  • Moving house or being away on holidays and in an unfamiliar place
  • Teething/ sickness
  • Not having a regular nap routine (this gives rise to unpredictability and makes them feel uncertain).

When our little ones are experiencing separation anxiety, we can sometimes unintentionally make things worse, so we need to resist the temptation to panic and “rescue” our baby. The act of rescuing in this situation often leads to stopping the crying at any cost which in the long run is likely to backfire.

Five tips to handle separation anxiety and build confidence in your little one

1. Practice and nurture a short but special way to say goodbye-

Some ideas to say goodbye at drop off are:

  • Have a fun saying that you always say as you leave ie ‘see ya later alligator’, ‘time for a hug ladybug’, ‘see you soon raccoon’.
  • Sign out the words ‘I love you’ with actions.
  • A super hug ie arms wide open then launch into a big squeeze.
  • Get them busy straight away- have them help you grab out the things they might need like their hat or water bottle.
  • Three hand squeezes to signal the words I love you ie first squeeze ‘I’, second squeeze ‘love’, third squeeze ‘you’.
  • Kiss them from their head to their toes.

2. Keep things predictable

Make it your priority for the goodbye to be short and consistent. Running through the exact same ‘special goodbye’ every time you leave your child means your little one will know what to expect when it’s time to say goodbye (and they might even look forward to it). As they pre-empt your goodbye routine, they’ll then be ready for what comes next in their day. Keeping things consistent builds trust, helps your child to relax and feel comfortable and is a simple method to reassure your little one.

Expert Tip: When things are unpredictable or we spend too long saying goodbye or hanging about we can unintentionally create anxiety- the very thing we are trying to avoid.

3. Make it obvious you are saying goodbye

You want to leave your little one in a way that leaves them with no doubt you said goodbye to them. Ways to do this might include crouching down to their level or picking them up to ensure you lock eyes with them and have their attention as you quickly say goodbye and give them a hug and run through your special goodbye.

4. Always tell them when you’ll be back

Maintaining the truth and being consistent about your return is very important. Give your child a time frame of your return that is within their understanding ie ‘I’ll be back after your afternoon tea’ or ‘I’m coming to get you a little bit after your afternoon nap’.

5. Set your little one up for separation success

As you prepare your little one to spend time away from you, there are ways to build confidence in the process and help with the transition ie you can drop them to their grandparents or to their cousins or a friends for a playdate (it could be as little or as long as you like) and will give them the chance to experience time away from you. Starting with something like this will in most cases begin to create positive association around goodbyes and allows you to practise communication around when you’ll be coming back.

With the goodbye part sorted, there are still other ways your little one might showcase signs of the separation anxiety they are experiencing. This can often happen with sleep and settling but I have some advice on ways to ensure separation anxiety doesn’t flow on and negatively impact your little one’s sleep.

  1. Stick to the key principles of your settling approach – consistency and patience.
  2. Support, but don’t introduce new sleep props you don’t want or have worked hard to eliminate – think feeding, rocking, holding or co-sleeping.
  3. You go to them – keep their room a safe place, spend time in there and stay close by when they are settling to sleep, slowly lessening your intervention over a period of 1-2 weeks.

Separation anxiety can be uncomfortable and stressful when you’ve never faced it before but keeping your inner calm when your little one is losing it will have a positive flow on affect. Be patient and follow the tips outlined in this blog to set yourself up for separation success.

Want some extra help?

Read more about sleep regressions in my blog “everything you need to know about the 5 stages of sleep regressions”

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With Love,