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10 tips to help with separation anxiety

Toddler is hugging mother and has separation anxiety
There are typically 3 distinct bursts or peaks we see in separation anxiety. The first peak is around 8-9 months of age, then around 18 months, and lastly around 2 years of age.

We’ve all been there… attempting to put a load of laundry on or even escape for a toilet pit stop only to have our baby sob when we try to walk away and leave the room! Or perhaps you’ve tried to pass the baby over to their grandparents and their bottom lip drops as they cling to you! This is known as separation anxiety and it's inevitable they’ll experience it in the first few years of life. Like other sleep regressions, it can appear out of the blue. They are fine one day and then the next a terrified, sobbing, and clingy mess. This can feel really unnerving and challenging for parents. Try not to be alarmed and fear something is wrong - it's a really normal part of development and a sign of a healthy attachment! You haven’t caused this clinginess - nothing you have done has created this separation anxiety. It's totally normal.

Separation anxiety peaks

There are typically 3 distinct bursts or peaks we see in separation anxiety. The first peak is around 8-9 months of age, then around 18 months, and lastly around 2 years of age.

Baby holding parents hand
How to help your little one with separation anxiety

Signs of separation anxiety

(you won’t even need to read a list here, you will KNOW when this hits - it's very easy to spot!)

  • Clinginess

  • Crying whenever they are put down

  • Crying when you try and move out of sight

  • Preference for one parent over the other

  • Freaking out around strangers

  • Crying if you try and hand them over to someone else

  • Being easily comforted by being in their parent’s arms

What is going on?!

Around the 8-9 month mark (but you may see this peak somewhere between 7-10 months) your little one is developing what we call Object Permanence. Simply put, your little one is grasping that things still exist even when they can't see it! This coincides with a sleep regression (click the link to read more about those!).

Jean Piaget, a child psychologist, and researcher pioneered this concept and used a simple experiment of showing a baby a toy and then covering it with a blanket to see if the baby looked for it. Those that looked for the toy showed they had grasped object permanence - they understood the toy still existed when they couldn’t see it! This can be fun to try with your baby! It also shows us the correlation with this peak in separation anxiety. Now your little one knows you exist if they can see you or not. When they can't see you, naturally they aren’t happy and will often get upset! This patch feels frustrating and makes it really hard, especially if you need to leave your little one at daycare.

How to help your little one in the throes of separation anxiety

Firstly, like other regressions and developmental stages, having an understanding that this is a normal part of development and you aren’t doing anything wrong can help! Know you have the most healthy beautiful attachment with your little one and are doing a great job.

  • This is a great age to help them form a bond with a cuddly or comfort object. This can provide lots of security for them when they do need to be apart from you.

  • Ensure you build lots of connection time in the lead-up to bedtime. They may even need a slightly extended bedtime routine. Have a bath or shower with them, spend 1:1 time and offer loads of snuggles in the lead-up to bedtime. My free toddler bedtime flashcards below may help to create a calm and connected bedtime.

  • Play Peekaboo. Head around a corner or behind a door and talk to them, encouraging them to crawl and come and find you.

  • Play hide and find. Let your little one see you pop a toy on the floor then layer this toy up with a blanket, towel, face cloth, etc. Encourage them to remove those layers till they find the toy.

  • Keep consistent… believe in your little one that they still have those self-settling skills. If they are really fussing and unable to fall asleep because you’ve left the room, then you may need to spend a few nights sitting by the cot using your presence as they fall asleep. Try not to do too much extra soothing (pickups, feeding off to sleep, bringing them out of the cot, etc.) in an attempt to get them off to sleep quicker because this can be harder to shift in the long run! Use your presence and touch to soothe but try keeping them in their usual sleep space.

  • Remember your voice as a parent is a really powerful tool. It's so comforting to them. It can help to keep talking to them as you leave the room letting them know you are still nearby. I’d often use the phrase, “Mummy always comes back,” to my own kids. Explain this to them and tell them what to expect.

  • Have some practice times where you pop out of the room, sing and talk to them so they know you are there even though they can’t see you.

  • Don’t sneak away - yes, it feels easier to sneak off and avoid the tears but this can result in even more clinginess and concern that you’ll disappear at any given moment!

  • Don’t drag out goodbyes - you don’t want to rush off but don’t prolong it with a gazillion reassurances and kisses dragging it out.

  • Remember calm breeds calm - keep positive, smiley, and confident when having to leave. This helps immensely.

Lastly, don’t worry!

Easier said than done I know but this is a really normal, temporary stage of development. Soon you’ll be able to pop that load of laundry on or run to the bathroom without bracing yourself for the distressed sobs.

If separation anxiety has derailed sleep for you and your little one is waking frequently overnight, then reach out and book a consult.

We can get your night sleep back on track for you. Your little one needs 11-12 hours of consolidated sleep overnight and together we can make this happen.

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