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The crying.

The clinging.

The tantrums.

It happens whether you’re dropping your baby off at daycare or grandma’s house, or just leaving the room to take a much-needed potty break that (you’d hoped!) you could do without a two-foot-tall audience-of-one.

Yes, today we are talking about separation anxiety.

What causes separation anxiety?

Children can develop separation anxiety as early as four months old, though it usually starts with a vengeance around nine months old and then peaks again around 18 months. Once babies develop “object permanence,” a normal developmental milestone where children realize that an object is still there even if they can’t see it, they often also develop separation anxiety.

One common test for determining object permanence is showing a baby a ball, putting a piece of fabric over the ball, and asking the baby where the ball is. If the baby lifts the fabric to try and find the ball, that baby understands object permanence. Translated to children, that means that the child suddenly understands that mom and dad are gone when he can’t see them, and that can be a frightening thought.

Separation anxiety has a lot of potential causes, but for most kids, it’s something to work through but not worry about. Causes for separation anxiety include:

  • Normal developmental milestones
  • Death of a loved one
  • Divorce
  • New sibling
  • Moving
  • Parent starting a job
  • Predisposition for anxious behaviors

Because children don’t fully understand the abstract concept of time, they might feel fear whenever a parent leaves. They might feel some scary thoughts or emotions like:

What if mom doesn’t come back?
Who will take care of me?
How will I get what I need?
What if something scary comes, and I need help?
Where does dad go when he leaves?

Without appropriate parental guidance, separation anxiety can cause problems whenever a parent needs to leave a child – including bedtime. Luckily, by following some sleep training guidelines, you can help reduce separation anxiety during both bedtime and daylight hours.

Guidelines for Easing Separation Anxiety at Bedtime

Every child is different, and while some children might feel separation anxiety acutely, others might not feel it at all. If your child expresses profound concern when you leave at night, there are some things that you can do to help ease their anxiety during the bedtime routine.

Leave quickly: It’s hard to see and hear your child struggling at bedtime, but just like when you work through separation anxiety during daylight hours, your nighttime goodbyes should be short, sweet, and to the point. You might want to rock, cuddle, and coo your child to sleep each night, but that’s just teaching him that he needs you in order to get to sleep. To help him learn how to sleep on his own, you’ll have to keep bedtime goodbyes short or extremely limited for a little while.

Talk about today and tomorrow: Some kids experience separation anxiety because they’re uncertain about the future. One way to combat that is to talk about the child’s day and focus on tomorrow’s plans. Something as simple as “Today we did a, b, and c – what was your favorite part? Tomorrow we are going to do x, y, and z – what are you excited for?” can work wonders. Then, as soon as the child wakes up in the morning, you can both talk over the things that will happen that day again. This activity ties going to sleep with waking up in a positive way.

Be consistent: Being consistent is another great way to help curb some of the separation anxiety that can happen around bedtime. Having a consistent, calm bedtime routine is one of the best things you can do to improve bedtime behavior. Taking a warm bath, listening to calming music or sounds, reading books, dimming the lights, and getting lots of cuddle time in goes a long way to help make bedtime a success.

Steer clear of scary: Scary books, stories, and shows have a way of replaying in the mind when things are dark and quiet. If your kid won’t sleep because of separation anxiety, make a concerted effort to keep him away from scary stimuli that could make your nightly separation more difficult. Instead, read calming books before bedtime and talk about the good things that happened during the day. That can help redirect the mind to think about positive things in the moments before sleep.

Keep other promises: This suggestion is a good rule of thumb for parenting success in general, but it is especially helpful for children who struggle with separation anxiety at night. By keeping your promises during the day, your child will learn that you will be available at nighttime, too. Knowing and understanding that can calm a lot of the separation fears that crop up around bedtime.

Meet basic needs: This seems like such an obvious suggestion, but it holds a lot of weight. Making sure that your child isn’t overtired, ate a good dinner or had a filling snack before bed, and has easy access to water (and the toilet, if potty trained) during the night are all ways to help ease separation anxiety at bedtime.

Separation anxiety is a real, valid emotion that many children feel from an early age, but it doesn’t have to stop bedtime from being successful. By keeping appropriate expectations and modifying your approach during daylight and nighttime hours, you can train your baby to sleep alone and both of you can have a positive bedtime experience.