Separation anxiety is a perfectly normal stage in a child’s development and can start anytime from at around 12 -20 months. Baby’s increased awareness causes her to realise that you may leave her at any time. This shows she has mastered skills such as recognising the difference between family and strangers, knowing how essential you are to her life and anticipating the feeling of loneliness that will follow from your departure. Unfortunately, she cannot comprehend that the departure is only temporary so it causes her great distress and panic to know that you might not return. Separation anxiety gradually diminishes as the child realises that you come back each time. However, during the condition, it obviously presents a large problem at bed-time.
A great comforter to a child with separation anxiety is routine. The consistent bedtime rituals you established in the latter half of your child’s first year become incredibly useful once more. If you didn’t establish any bedtime rituals then now is a great time to start. Although predictability is paramount, you want your bedtime rituals to be moulded towards your child’s development. The minor subtleties of the rituals such as the stories you read her, the music you play and the pre-bed snack should change with age but if you have a consistent routine, tweaking these details won’t affect her.
As soon as you notice the first signs of separation anxiety, the bed-time rituals should come back into play and strictly adhered to once more. However, now the child is a little older we can make some improvements to the ritual to ease the anxiety:
• Talk to her more. Try to use short, clear sentences to explain that it’s approaching bed-time. Use the same sentences every night because she will be comforted by the repetition. For example, you might exaggerate a yawn and say: “You must be getting very tired- it’s almost time for bed!” You’d be surprised to know how much she understands verbally.
• Try to keep the bedtime consistent. There may be a strong temptation to delay the bedtime on various nights so that a partner can return home from work and spend some quality time with baby. However, this will only exaggerate the problem and should be avoided wherever possible- a solution would be to try and make some quality time in the morning.
• Now that baby is passed the one year mark it is safe for her to take a comforting teddy or security blanket to bed with her. Include this item in the bedtime ritual so that when the time comes for you to leave for the night, the feeling of being left all alone will be bridged by the teddy or blanket. It may sound strange but rubbing the item on your face will leave a strong scent of you with baby which can be very comforting during the separation anxiety stage.
As adults we can relate to stressful experiences during the day causing sleep problems at night. This is the same with tots. Therefore try to keep the days as predictable as possible and try to reduce the daytime stress during this stage. For a tot experiencing separation anxiety, thrusting her into the arms of strangers and even some relatives can easily cause a lot of stress. Instead let your child decide how sociable she will be at this stage.
Also use the following tips during the day:
• Keep naptimes at consistent times of day and prepare for them in the routine way with a lullaby, dimming of lights, a cuddle etc.
• If you can you should probably avoid introducing a new babysitter at this stage in the tot’s development.
• At the times when you do need to leave your tot, keep things breezy. Smile, kiss her on the cheek and say in a cheerful voice: “Bye bye, I shall see you soon” and don’t reveal that you’re anxious about the departure as well!
• Try to minimise the time you’re away as much as possible, avoiding business trips or weekends away at this stage in the baby’s life. Baby’s concept of time is still very limited and this time apart may seem like a life time which will only exacerbate the sleepless nights.
• If practical, consider holding off pre-school until your tot’s verbal skills and ability to understand that you do come back, helps them deal with the scary new situation much more easily. Children under three will often react strongly to being separated from their parent or guardian, but if pre-school is necessary, a child over two can make the transition with only short-lived protest. (Lavin, Glaser, 2007)