Brave Little Baby

Does Separation anxiety impact sleep?

As your child gets older they become more aware of the distance between you and them, especially at night when separating for sleep. It’s a normal occurrence for them to wonder (and sometimes worry) when you will return because they only live in the present. So Separation Anxiety and sleep can go hand in hand.

Dr. Avi Sadeh in the book “Sleeping like a baby” states that separation anxiety is one of the main reasons for sleep struggles in early childhood. 

“The rise in the frequency of sleeping disorders during the first year of life may be linked to the appearance of the separation anxiety that is a normal developmental occurrence at this age. Things like returning to work from maternity leave, a new caretaker, the transition to daycare or any change that signifies separation and a new adaptation is frequently expressed immediately in the form of a significant sleep disorder.”

Dr. Avi Sadeh – Sleeping like a baby

Babies generally adjust well to different caretakers. Separation anxiety is much greater in parents than in infants! Most babies less than 6 months adapt well to other individuals as long as their basic requirements are met.

When does it happen

Separation anxiety can occur at any time. Some children may go through it later, between the ages of 18 months and 24 months. Some children never experience it.

Babies develop a sense of “object permanence” between the ages of 4 and 7 months. They are becoming aware that things and people exist even when they are not visible. Babies learn that when they can’t see their parents, it implies they’ve left. They don’t grasp time, so they don’t know when mom will return and can become upset by her absence. Whether mom is in the kitchen, the next bedroom, or the office, it makes little difference to the baby, who may cry until mom returns.

One of the peak times for separation anxiety is when a child learns to crawl and walk (8-12 months). They are becoming independent toddlers but becoming even more upset about being separated. This is when they learn that they can move away from you, and you can move away from them too.

Separation anxiety can also be heightened if your child has been through a traumatic experience like being hospitalized, the death of a loved one or a change in their familiar environment. Another big event that may increase this is adding another family member.

How long will it last?

Separation anxiety can linger for a long time, depending on the child and the parent’s reaction. Separation anxiety can endure from infancy to primary school in some situations, depending on a child’s disposition. 

Separation anxiety that interferes with an older child’s daily activities may indicate a more serious anxiety issue. If an older child develops separation anxiety out of nowhere, another issue, such as bullying or abuse, may be present. 

Separation anxiety differs from the normal sentiments that older children experience when their parents leave them (which can usually be overcome if a child is distracted enough). And children are aware of their parents’ reactions. If you go back into the room or cancel your plans every time your child cries, your child will continue to utilize this method to avoid separation.

Parental emotions and responses

Also be aware of your ability to separate with your child, as sometimes children can feed off the anxiety of their parents too.

Separation anxiety might have you feeling a variety of emotions. It can be nice to feel that your child is finally as attached to you as you are to him or her. But you’re also likely to feel guilty about taking time out for yourself, leaving your child with a caregiver, or going to work. And you may start to feel overwhelmed by the amount of attention your child seems to need from you.

Keep in mind that your little one’s unwillingness to leave you is a good sign that healthy attachments have developed between the two of you. Eventually, your child will be able to remember that you always return after you leave, and that will be comfort enough while you’re gone. This also gives kids a chance to develop coping skills and a little independence.

You may experience a range of feelings as a result of separation anxiety. It can be comforting to know that your child is becoming as attached to you as you are to him or her. However, you are likely to feel terrible about taking care of yourself, leaving your child with a caretaker, or going to work. And you may become overwhelmed by the amount of attention your child seems to require from you. 

Remember that your child’s hesitation to leave you is an indication that healthy ties have formed between the two of you. Your child will eventually remember that you always return after you leave, which will be enough consolation to them while you’re gone. This also allows children to practice coping skills and gain some independence.

Tips for handling Separation Anxiety

Here are some ways to help you deal with these peak times in separation anxiety:

  • When introducing a new person to your child, always make sure to do it slowly and at your child’s pace. Schedule a few visits together before leaving your child with the new caregiver, also leave them for short periods at a time and slowly increase these periods.
  • Always let them know before leaving that another loving caretaker will be there to look after them.
  • Increase daytime cuddles and love before a separation event.
  • Stick to a peaceful routine even when changes occur.
  • Never sneak away. Always say goodbye and explain when you will be returning.
  • Always greet them joyfully, calm and with confidence when you leave and greet them excitedly when you come back.
  • When you say goodbye always mean it, by coming back you will only make things worse.
  • Practicing separation during the day by stepping into another room while still talking to your baby so that they can hear you but not necessarily see you. This helps them realize that even when you are not with them you are still there.
  • Make good on your promises. It is critical that you return when you have stated that you will. This is crucial since that is how your child will gain faith that he or she will survive the time apart.

As difficult as it may be to leave a crying child in the care of another person, you must have faith in the caregiver’s abilities.  It is possible that by the time you arrive at your car, your child will have calmed down and be distracted by something else.

Tips for handling separation anxiety and sleep:

  • Consistency. Stick to your bedtime routine as far as possible and stay consistent in the way you respond to your child when they are unhappy. Stick to one way of handling these emotions (See our Levels of Soothing).
  • Calm & Regulated. Our children often mirror how we feel and act, so at bedtime especially try and stay as cool calm and collected as you can manage. Children often become anxious if we act otherwise. They want to know we are in control.
  • A lovey or soft toy is a great way to offer comfort when you are not around. Introduce this as early as possible and wear it with you for a few days before the time so it can even smell like you!
  • Avoid punishment at bedtime as far as possible. We do not want to cause them to go into fight & flight mode and not be able to think or reason.

Remember this…

Be patient; this too shall pass. Separation anxiety may be more severe in your child if he or she has never been cared for by anyone other than you, is naturally introverted, or has additional stressors.

Also, rely on your intuition. To determine if there is an issue with the childcare arrangement, you should look at your child’s behavior and see if they’re having difficulties sleeping or eating.

Talk to your doctor if your child’s extreme anxiety about being separated continues well into elementary school or beyond and is interfering with everyday activities. Separation anxiety disorder (SAD) is a rare but debilitating condition. Children with this disease are terrified of being separated from their families and believe that unpleasant things will happen if they are. If you see any of the following symptoms in your child:

  • panic symptoms (such as nausea, vomiting, or shortness of breath) or panic attacks before a parent leaves
  • nightmares about separation
  • fear of sleeping alone (although this is also common in kids who don’t have separation anxiety)
  • excessive worry about being lost or kidnapped or going places without a parent

Most children’s separation anxiety subsides on its own, without the assistance of a doctor. Talk to your doctor if you have any questions or concerns.

“Separation Anxiety (for Parents) - Nemours KidsHealth.” Separation Anxiety (for Parents) - Nemours KidsHealth, kidshealth.org, 1 Oct. 2016, https://kidshealth.org/en/parents/sep-anxiety.html.
Nazario, Brunilda. “Separation Anxiety Disorder in Children - WebMD.” Separation Anxiety Disorder in Children - WebMD, www.google.com, https://www.webmd.com/parenting/separation-anxiety. Accessed 23 May 2022.
Sadeh, Avi. Sleeping Like a Baby. 2008, https://doi.org/10.1604/9780300129229.
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