If your little one is going through a bout of separation anxiety, chances are they'll struggle to sleep through the night - and so will you!
Though it can be distressing to know your baby is experiencing separation anxiety - which is causing them to struggle at night - ultimately it's a very normal thing for babies to go through, and is usually only temporary.
To add to this, there are various things you can do to help them sleep, and ease their anxiety - maintaining a consistent nap and sleep routine is crucial, for instance. We'll go into more detail later in this article - and we'll also go over some more important things to consider if your baby's sleep schedule needs improving.
In this article:
What causes separation anxiety - and how does it affect sleep?
When babies are around 6 months old, they begin to understand object permanence. This is the concept that objects and people continue to exist even when they are out of sight. Though it's an important developmental milestone, it can cause separation anxiety, as babies begin to understand that when you leave, you're gone, and they don't know when you'll return.
This understanding of object permanence can lead to them becoming very clingy, and getting upset if you attempt to leave them - whether that's with other people, or even just on their own. It is, however, a good sign that they're forming a secure attachment to you!
As babies continue to gain independence as they grow into toddlers, separation anxiety can reach its peak sometime between 12 and 18 months, as with increased independence comes increased uncertainty about their experiences. To add to this, stressful or traumatic life events can increase feelings of anxiety.
This anxiety can really disrupt your baby's sleep pattern, causing them to struggle to fall asleep. It can also coincide with sleep regressions, which just adds to the issues. Many babies will not want to sleep without having you nearby, and will kick up a fuss if you try to leave them alone.
Additionally, when they do fall asleep, they might not stay that way - oftentimes babies will not sleep through the night, and will cry when they wake up and you're not there.
Separation anxiety - how to help your baby sleep
Establish a good nap time routine
A consistent nap time routine and sleep schedule can do wonders for an anxious baby. The stability brought by a consistent routine can help keep babies well-rested - this means they have a better chance of remaining calm and being able to cope with you leaving.
A good nap time and bedtime routine also gives your little one some time to wind down before they sleep, which can help them feel safe and calm. This can be useful in helping them sleep the right amount of time during naps and overnight.
Changes to a routine can become what your baby expects fairly quickly - which can result in them becoming stressed or anxious when there are inconsistencies, so ensure you're able to stick to your routines!
Learn the signs your baby is tired
It may sound obvious to say, but becoming familiar with how your baby shows they are tired is very important. Once you can recognise all the signs, you can react quicker and meet their needs - preventing them from getting too tired.
Here are some of the tell-tale signs of a tired baby:
- Frowning or looking worried
- Rubbing their eyes
- Drooping eyes or fluttering eyelids
- Pulling their ears
- Pulling their hair
- Becoming less responsive
- Arching backwards
There are a couple of signs that can indicate your baby is overtired, however. These include:
- Becoming upset or irritable
Figuring out when in a day your baby gets tired can be a helpful indication of whether your current sleep schedule is working, or whether it needs some adjustments.
Create positive associations with nap time
It's a great idea to help your little one form positive sleep associations. A sleep association is essentially any thing or action that your baby associates with it being time to fall asleep - which lets them know it's time to wind down before naptime or bed.
However - there are positive and negative sleep associations. A negative sleep association is something that you have to do for them during sleep, such as rocking them. Positive associations on the other hand can be things that are done in preparation for sleep, or something babies can do themselves through the night.
A consistent naptime and bedtime routine can be positive associations as they occur prior to sleep, and set the scene for your little one, letting them calm down and relax before they you leave them to sleep on their own.
When it comes to sleeping independently, the right sleepwear can also be a positive association, particularly if it helps your baby self soothe - like our Zen Sack™ Classic. It's a sleep sack which is safely weighted to mimic your touch. We consider it essential for sleep training!
Kim West wrote this for her baby sleep site Sleeplady.com on the topic of avoiding negative sleep associations and creating positive ones:
"Remember, the habits you begin to teach your child at this early age set the stage for sleep patterns kept long into adulthood! What better gift could you give your child then a lifetime of peaceful, restorative sleep? Celebrate the independence of your child falling to sleep on her own! Sweet dreams!"
Adjust your baby's sleep schedule if necessary
If your little one is struggling to sleep due to separation anxiety, nap and sleep schedule adjustments may need to be made to make sure they aren't set up to have trouble from the very beginning! It's important that your baby's sleep schedule makes sense for their age, to ensure they are sleeping and waking up at the right times, as well as having the right amount of daytime naps (which are the right length).
The right sleep schedule can prevent your baby from becoming over and under tired. If they're too tired or sleep deprived they may protest sleep due to becoming stressed, and if they aren't tired enough may protest sleep simply because they don't feel like it's bed time yet. Either of these in combination with separation anxiety can make getting to sleep particularly difficult.
While nailing your baby or young child's sleep schedule might not always result in their anxiety being massively reduced, it will at least help you decide whether the schedule was playing a part, or whether you need to consider other methods of easing their anxieties.