We often see parents who are feeling overwhelmed with feelings of guilt or inadequacy when it comes to what’s happening with their child’s sleep. We then see these feelings increase and throw in some extra confusion when their child hits that stage when they get distressed when their parents but in many cases, Mum, is not around. It’s not just distressing for kids though! It is heart-wrenching for parents and can make us feel absolutely terrible.
Let’s take a look at what is going on and review eight tips for getting through this stage.
For those of you who have been through this you know this well but let’s lay it out. The thought-process is:
- Mum’s not in the room - Therefore mum is somewhere else - I would prefer to be there with her - Make that happen or I am going to kick off!
What does this mean??
This situation can leave us wondering “Am I doing something wrong??!” After all, a well-adjusted child should probably feel reasonably safe when they are separated from their parents for a little while, shouldn’t they? I mean, Jenny from the office says her baby is perfectly content with being left with her babysitter overnight. And that mum from that Facebook group said her baby will happily play by herself for hours at a time and actually takes toys to her room occasionally to get some ‘me’ time.
Two things to keep in mind:
1. Never compare yourself or your child to mothers and babies described in the parenting groups on social media except of course the Baby of Mine Sleep Tribe! Much like so much else on social media these experiences are almost always conveyed through the rosiest of lenses
2. Separation anxiety is completely normal, expected and a sign of a healthy attachment between parent and child
What is Separation Anxiety?
Separation anxiety typically starts to occur around 6-8 months of age, when your little one starts to realise that things continue to exist when they are not in sight. It’s a cognitive milestone known as ‘object permanence’ which is defined as ‘the understanding that objects continue to exist even when they cannot be observed’. In other words, out of sight no longer means out of mind.
So as your baby begins to grasp this concept, they realise that if you, their favourite person in their whole world, are not there, you’re elsewhere. And hang on a minute; if that’s the case then you might not be coming back! It’s fascinating when you think about this but it is also heart breaking. This realisation for a baby is obviously cause for a full-blown panic. While it is normal and natural and it’s a sign that your little one is learning and that they have a secure attachment, it’s tough on us parents! It means leaving them with a baby sitter or dropping them at daycare can be an absolute horror.
What can you do?
Here are some suggestions to take the edge of the situation as your child progresses through this stage. It’s not about ‘fixing’ this as it is an important developmental stage for your child to move through, to experience the emotions but have the appropriate guidance to organise their emotions and have the adequate support and guidance.
1. Lead by Example
Your little one follows your cues, so if you’re not willing to let her out of your sight, they probably, albeit unconsciously, feel like they are not safe if you’re not in the room. So designate a room where they can explore a little and play safely without your direct supervision for periods of time. It’s a small adjustment but it has tremendous effect.
2. Don’t Avoid It
Learning about separation anxiety and reunion is an important milestone so don’t just take the path of least resistance and stay with your child 24/7 until they are 7 years old. Let them know that it’s okay for them to get upset when you leave and reassure them that you’ll always come back when you do. If there are tears around it, that’s alright. This is an important concept that they need to get on board with.
3. Start Slow
Once your little one has started to demonstrate the understanding that they will be spending some time with someone besides a parent, make it a short outing. Don’t plan on dinner and a movie or an overnight for the first few attempts.
4. Start With Someone Familiar
Kids typically do a little better being left with a grandparent or family friend who they have already spent some time with and who they have grown to trust a little so call in a little favour, put some wine in the fridge and plan to spend at least an hour away from the house for the first few attempts.
5. Stick Around for a While
After your sitter, parent, friend or whoever is watching your little one arrives, plan to hand around for half an hour or so. Seeing that this is someone you’re familiar with will go a long way in reassuring your child that they are ‘good people’ and worthy of their trust
6. Face the Music
Many of us have, at least once, attempted to distract our children and then snuck out the door without saying goodbye. After all, it’s the goodbye that provokes the reaction right? But even if it provokes tears, it’s important for your child to understand you’re going to leave sometimes and that you’ll be back when you say you will.
7. Establish a Routine
Much like bedtime, a solid predictable goodbye routine helps your little one recognise and accept the situation. A set number of kisses and hugs, a memorable key phrase and a clear indication of when you will be back should be just the right balance of short and reassuring.
8. Speak in Terms They Will Understand
Instead of telling them how long you will be gone or what time you will be back speak to them in relation to their schedule. For example, after nap time, before bed, after dinner and so on.
Remember that nothing is going to prevent your child from getting a little bit upset when you leave but you can definitely keep the fuss to a minimum. It’s important that just like with sleep, you need to be consistent, supportive, assertive, calm and predictable. Before long your child will understand the concept of you leaving and coming back.
Please do note that these tips are suggestions for children that are dealing with ordinary, everyday separation anxiety. There is also a condition called Separation Anxiety Disorder which is obviously more serious and warrants a trip to your pediatrician if you suspect your little one might be afflicted with something more serious.