How to deal with separation anxiety in children

Separation anxiety in children is one of those discussions that crosses your mind briefly when you notice habits in your child developing that are causing distress every time they have to leave your side. It is important to understand this is genuinely a normal emotion for babies and children as they develop and become aware of their surroundings it can be very overwhelming when their 'safe person' is not the first person they can turn too at every second of the day. They are learning to trust and absorb the environment beyond you and it can be overwhelming at times which is when the separation anxiety begins to become more noticeable and you begin to question how to deal with the separation anxiety in your children. Separation anxiety is first apparent in babies as young as 4 months according to HealthyChildren.org but more commonly from 9 months when a baby is aware they are no longer close to you. This can often first occur as crying when they recognise your presence back in a room where they forgot you had initially left but then develop further to anxiety of you physically walking away from them. It can be quite distressing for you as a parent but I do have good news that there are ways you can deal with separation anxiety in children that will begin to reduce the anxiousness in your child and often in you too.

Why is my child having separation anxiety?

Your child often begins to develop separation anxiety when circumstances in their routine change. This commonly happens when a parent returns back to work. The child went from 6-12 months knowing nothing but you to being in part-time daycare and having an inconsistent weekly routine. It can't be avoided because well mumma...you need to work or have time for yourself too. Reasons for separation in children include:
  • Change in sleep habits
  • Parents returning to work
  • Moving house
  • Holidaying (away from safe space)
  • Weaning
  • Teething
  • Sickness
  • Beginning daycare
  • Inconsistent daily routine (unpredictable)
You will find there is often a cause for the separation anxiety and when you can narrow down what the cause may be we can then begin to help them feel less anxiety. It is important your child is prepared for any changes that may be happening in their life even if they still seem too young to understand completely beginning that conversation around what is happening next begins to let them know that you will always openly communicate changes and they will begin to link these changes later. You may find at times that your child deals fine with the thought of you leaving and then other times becomes distressed and you wonder what you did differently but you haven't done anything wrong or differently. Like you and I sometimes we have a bad day and may need some extra tender loving care otherwise we have put together a list that can help you begin implementing techniques to reduce the child separation anxiety.

6 Techniques to deal with Separation Anxiety in children

  1. Prepare your little one for changes about to occur - Preparing your child no matter how young for any changes going to occur in their life allows them to begin to understand that something is about to change rather than blindsiding them with sudden changes to their schedule. This reassurance of change about to occur and telling them confidently that it is a good and exciting change and continue to remind them of this.
  2. Introduce a toy/ cuddle toy - During your communication to your little one you could also introduce a new toy/ cuddle toy and remind them to cuddle this when you are not there to give them a cuddle. This will allow them to bond beyond just you and feel safe when having their special cuddle toy.
  3. Show them new changes - Before suddenly implementing a change have them get used to what will be different. For example if they are going to be going to a daycare ensure you do a few stay and play sessions where you pop down to daycare together to get them used to their new carers with your attendance. Do this 3-4 times before leaving them for the first full day. This goes the same if having a new babysitter or grandparent who will caring for them. Ensure they have had plenty of 'play' time with your supervision before leaving them for their first full day.
  4. Stick to what you say - Your toddler is relying on everything you say when they are anxious about changes so it is important you keep the promises you are making. If you say 'I will be back in 5 minutes' then don't mean longer. You are trust building here so instead of setting an exact time you can say confidently 'I will be back' so they know you will be back but aren't held accountable to a specific time frame. Other phrases to bound them to is I will be back after nap time, I will be back when you wake up in the morning, I will be back after your favourite show finishes, I will be back after dinner.
  5. Have a set schedule - if your routine is changing try as much as possible to ensure this new schedule stays set and consistent. Having them in daycare or care of someone else on the same days each week minimising the uncertainty will help to alleviate any separation anxiety.
  6. Don't check in - The thought of you leaving is upsetting to a child and for them to have to go through it again through a phone or video call can cause the same tears as you leaving the house. It is important to feel confident in the care you have chosen for your child and by minimising check-ins allows them to feel that same trust in their changes.

Can Separation Anxiety Effect Sleep?

Separation anxiety is actually a huge common occurance in effecting a childs sleep. It can look like a previous good sleeper beginning to resist their wind down routine requiring your assistance until in a complete deep sleep. It can often mean they are upset unless they have you in their sight or in your arms. The separation anxiety your baby is having then leads to an overtired baby who will only nap for short periods, which then impacts night sleep too. Tips to combat separation anxiety effecting babies sleep:
  • Remain calm (your little one will pick up on your own distress which can increase their anxiety)
  • Avoid creating any new associations (such as feeding to sleep, rocking etc)
  • Avoid bringing them into your bed/bedroom (we want them to know their room is still safe)
  • Try sitting next to their cot for comfort until they calm reminding them it is okay.
You have got this! Parenting is a learning process and every new phase for your child is a new phase for you but always remember you are not alone. This too shall pass like everything else in Motherhood. Please reach out to your community, friends or family if you ever feel distressed by circumstances. For more articles that may interest you see our full blog with helpful advice and articles here.
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