Things you need to know about separation anxiety and sleep

Things you need to know about separation anxiety and sleep

Separation anxiety can and will affect even some of the best sleepers. This is because just like experiences during the day, sleep means a separation from one or both parents. Sometimes the effects on sleep are temporary and reasonably short lived, or sometimes they will hang around for years depending on our responses and approach.

Fact: Some children will experience separation anxiety worse than others.

Fact: Some children in the same household exposed to the same environment will experience it more intensely than others.

Fact: It is a totally normal part of development and it will pass!

Separation anxiety can range from mild to intense and it can mostly affect children between 3 months to 3 years. A peak is how we describe when it can appear more heightened than at other times. The first peak is usually noticed at around 7-10 months and then again at around 14-18 months and 2 years. This doesn’t mean that between the peaks it just goes away. It can still be experienced at varying degrees, coming and going like a set of different sized waves.

Separation anxiety experienced during the first peak at 7-10 months is usually due to the ability to now understand object permanence. This means that they realise you are separate from them and you can move away from them but still exist. During the next peak at around 14-18 months of age, this object permanence becomes heightened again with more physical development. At 2 years old there is a potential for separation anxiety to be linked to a fear (such as being afraid of the dark) or sometimes it’s just realising that you could be having fun without them! FOMO is a very real feeling, especially for those social butterflies out there!

Your child’s temperament will play a huge role in the intensity and extent of separation anxiety. Some children breeze through it (this was my middle child) while others are noticeably more upset and distressed (child number three for me). It can be manageable with some comfort and reassurance and distraction, or it can feel almost impossible to be out of their sight. Some children can get really distressed, sometimes past a level we are comfortable with as parents! There is some truth that exposing your child to new experiences can make it easier, but you can have children from the same family that just feel it more intensely. Separating from their parents can just be harder for some children, so try not to compare your child to someone else’s, as it’s likely not to be a fair contest!

Unfortunately, we cannot stop separation anxiety because it is a normal part of our children’s development. Our children experience this because of:

  • Limited memory.
  • Object permanence.
  • Living life in the present moment.
  • Egocentrism, so believing you exist for them.
  • Increased independence. This is a great feeling, but it can also heighten insecure feelings as well. Increased mobility makes it even more obvious that they can move away from you, which means you can move away from them!
  • Cognitively they develop the ability to know the differences between places and people. This eventually leads them to be able to compare and judge situations, being aware if things are not the way they like them to be.

A positive thing about separation anxiety is that it demonstrates that your child is forming strong and healthy attachments towards you. Unfortunately, this isn’t always shown in the loving way that we would like! Some of the behaviour you may experience with your child can be:

  • Clingy and needing to know where you are at all times.
  • Wanting to be carried, holding your hand, sitting on you.
  • Wary of other people.
  • Regression in some area’s ‘baby’ behaviour.
  • Whinging a lot.
  • Night waking wanting to be with you.
  • Difficulty going to bed.
  • Refusing sleep altogether.
  • Distressed or panic at their mother or father’s absence.

Remember that it is normal for your child to experience fears related to separation. But just because it is normal, it doesn’t mean that your child has to be with you during every minute of the day. We definitely don’t want you to reach a point where you begin to resent them for their behaviour. As parents, we can help them develop the skills and provide structure in order to cope better with separation anxiety. We just need to show them how.

How to help your child with separation anxiety 

The first point of call is to work on getting them used to the separation during the day. Start small by focusing on one area where it seems to affect you, or your child the most. Is it when you go to the toilet, or into another room, or is it when you leave your child with someone else?

Practice and positive praise will go a long way!

Practice and expose your child to time apart. This might be just going into another room alone to begin with! Lots of positive praise, support and encouragement for independent play during the day and providing lots of positive attention. You can do this by increasing your cuddles, time and affection and showing interest in your child’s activities, smiling, eye contact and encouraging words, then leaving them do it. Encourage them to explore things away from you in a safe environment and praise them for doing so. As much as you can, praise behaviour such as playing independently and ignore as much of the clingy behaviours as you can throughout the day.

Build up towards lots of little and frequent trips in or outside the home. Practicing time apart will help your child to develop their own ways to adapt to your absence and foster their self-esteem through positive experiences of separations and reunions. Avoiding separations from your child can actually make the problem worse. Children are very responsive to body language, so if you are tense and anxious, they will feel it too.

Tip: Starting with small and frequent trips can be beneficial over a longer and less frequent trips if your child seems highly anxious.

What if your child screams every time you put them down to bed?

  • Preparation is key! A consistent and repetitive bedtime routine will help your child to feel secure. Check out my blog: How to create a bedtime routine that works!
  • Explain to them the steps before bedtime. It is important try to squeeze in a little 1:1 time just before bed in the environment they will be sleeping in especially if your child is experiencing anxiety.
  • Lots of positive talk about their room and time in there during the day. This enhances that it is a positive space.
  • Preparation before bed and explanation on where you will be once they shut their eyes (make it boring) can feel reassuring to a child.
  • Stay calm and consistent relaxed and confident. I know it can be super frustrating, I get it! Acknowledge your feelings of anxiety or anger and give yourself a pep talk. Have a plan beforehand to set yourself up as best as you can.
  • Stay calm and consistent once you’ve decided your plan and keep the departure simple and short.
  • Let them know you would prefer them not to scream because they are safe, and you will be checking on them. Screaming or tantrum behaviour will not mean that bedtime is over.
  • Even if your child doesn’t fall asleep initially this is ok! Stay consistent as purposefully not going to sleep can be heightened by their development of self-awareness and independence.
  • Talk about what you will do together in the morning as a distraction or talk about something completely random that draws in their attention. Talk about what they would like as a reward for showing good behaviour or explain to them a reward you will be giving them.
  • We want to offer comfort but not to the point whereby you end up sitting next to them until they are asleep and then sneaking away. This can actually end up making things worse! Short and boring even if it means more frequent visits until they are asleep are best. 

Other considerations 

  • There is definitely no quick fixes and it can take lots of love, patience and consistency to improve the situation.
  • Make sure the awake time, amount of naps and duration are age appropriate. Check out my Instagram posts for information on awake times and amount of naps recommended for each age to ensure they are not under or overtired.
  • A comforter can bring your child extra security when they are away from you.
  • Short, sharp and precise sentences are better than long drawn out explanations.
  • Extra comfort may be necessary overnight when they wake, but these events should be short and boring. Remember separation anxiety is developmental so lots of extra attention during the night such as reading a story will not make it go away. This time will pass.
  • Be confident with all the extra work you’ve been putting into the separation anxiety during the day and know that they are safe, and you are supporting them.
  • If they are around 2 years old, you may like to consider a red night light if the anxiety is fear based.
  • If you are worried, sad or angry, your child might think it isn’t safe and can get upset too.
  • No matter how frustrated you feel, avoid criticising or being negative about your child’s difficulty with separation. Take a break and let off some steam if you need or open up to someone and discuss the situation away from their little ears! 

Normal responses after a separation

When you begin to practice separation, some children will pretend to ignore their parent on return. Some will act angrily or increase their clinginess and tantrums. Night waking and bedtime struggles can also become more frequent post a separation. This is why it is important to acknowledge your child’s feelings and how much you missed them during the day with some extra hugs and attention but not to transfer your guilty or anxious feelings onto them during the night. Other children seem to have a joyful reunion!

In summary

Experiencing separation anxiety with your child does not mean you have to stop leaving them. It’s about being available to them but continuing with your normal routine and limits. Routine, structure, and reasonable limits without much change will actually help them to continue to feel more secure in the long run. Separation anxiety shouldn’t put you off sorting out sleep problems, waking and night visits if you don’t want them to continue.


Hi! I’m Jen, Internationally Certified Infant and Child Sleep Consultant, Registered Nurse for over 13 years and Mother to three beautiful children. I absolutely love supporting families to thrive and develop sleep confidence for themselves and their babies

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