Infant Separation Anxiety and Sleeping Through the Night

Between 6 and 12 months of age, babies learn a lot.  One important thing that they learn is that they are separate from their parents.  They can cling during the day when you put them down to go to the bathroom, but they can really scream at night when you start the bedtime rituals or when they wake up and you are not there.  Actually, you can celebrate this new mental milestone;  learning that they are separate from you is a good thing.  Dealing with their initial fears and all that crying can be tough. Here are some ways to support babies and save your sanity as well:

During the day:

  • Use peek-a-boo to practice imaginary separation.  Sounds silly, but at this age, they think you really are leaving when you go under a receiving blanket.  They don’t have a firm grasp of the concept of object permanence yet.
  • Use Patience Stretching from The Happiest Toddler on the Block.  Smile warmly, say “I will be right back” in a pleasant voice, and step out of the room for a few seconds.  Come back and engage with your baby again.  Next time, make it 10 seconds, and so on.  Build that ability to know that you do leave but you always return.
  • Be the kind of parent that always does what she says.  Plan to go to the park?  Deliver on that.  Promise a cookie?  Always get them that cookie, and be someone that can always be counted on.  Babies in this stage can remember the overarching sense of consistency you provide.
  • Respond to separation crying with warmth, but there can be no trace of anxiety or upset tones in your voice or your body language.  This is the time to deliver an Oscar-winning performance because young infants listen to your tone and all the non-verbal information even more than your words.  If you have a lot of anxiety about going back to work, or if you have issues with loss and separation that are coming up, speak to a trusted friend or a professional.  Parenting can often bring out your feelings that you thought were dealt with a long time ago.
  • Don’t Sneak Away.  Why?  You want to send the message that you can be counted on to return, and you need to do the firm, positive reassuring goodbye in order to send that message.  Without it, all you have is the emotional consolation when you return.  Think about the whole experience from your child’s perspective, and you will see why sneaking away only increases the anxiety and teaches the child to watch your departures like a hawk.

At bedtime:

  • Use all the techniques as needed from above, plus:
  • Use your bedtime routine and stick to it for reassurance.  This is not the time to change it up, even if your child pushes away the favorite book and the lovey.  Routines give children in a growth phase reassurance that some things in life will be familiar.  Crying when the bedtime ritual begins can be their way of saying that they anticipate the separation, and your routine will comfort them.  You may add to the routine as they grow, but the essential routine should stay the same for consistency at a time in the day when they are vulnerable.
  • Consider varying the person who does that routine, so that your baby feels safe and secure with more than one person.  That may mean expressing milk so that another person can do the bedtime feeding.  Think of the benefits for your baby in having many people to feel reassured by, not just one. So much more support  and a sense that the world is safe even if they are not with that one person.  Again, some parents really like being the only person a child can be comforted by.  It makes them feel special in a way they are not feeling in their adult life.  That may be something to think about, because parenting will bring up those kinds of issues.  It can put a spotlight on a marriage or on job satisfaction in a way that other events do not.
  • Look at other stressors contributing to crying.  New things like learning to digest solids (make lunch the heaviest meal of the day), teething, recent travel or new caregivers, and growth spurts disrupt sleep and make babies clingy and fussy.  Even learning how to stand in a crib can seem so exciting until you need someone to help you get down again!

Separation issues come up again later in infancy and toddlerhood, so this first period of anxiety, handled well, sets the tone for your parenting through the years.  Imagine that soon this baby will go off to school by herself!  Prepare her, and prepare yourself to give her roots and wings.

By Cathy Collyer

I am a licensed occupational therapist, licensed massage therapist, and certified CBT-i sleep coach in private practice in the NYC area. I have over 25 years of professional experience in adult and pediatric treatment. It has been a joy to help people of all ages improve their ability to grow and thrive! Occupational therapists are focused on enhancing a client's functioning in everyday life. We are practical healthcare providers, interested in teaching, adapting actions and environments, and building a client's useful skills for living their best life, regardless of their challenges. I am the author of five books, including "Staying In The Room: Managing Medical And Dental Care When You Have DID" and "The Practical Guide To Toilet Training the Autistic Child". I lecture on many subjects, including sleep, trauma, and development. Contact me to learn more about how I can help you achieve YOUR goals!

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