Baby separation anxiety
often unrecognized cause of disturbed sleep.
Your baby or toddler refuses to settle at night or for
through the night, often wakes up crying, can't self-soothe anymore, etc.
Fortunately you can
at night during separation anxiety phases with a
few simple ideas and techniques, right below. But first a quick look at what it is and how to spot it.
What is baby separation anxiety?
Baby separation anxiety is
your little one fears never to see you again
after you leave
This can be when you leave your baby with
another carer but just as much when you go from one room to
the other in your home.
when they wake up at
night and you're not there.
Observing your baby or toddler's separation anxiety may be heartbreaking but it's
an important development phase
. It is how they learn to be an
usually starts around 4 to 6 months and peaks at about 1 to 1,5 years
old for many. Still, some babies will show few (clear) separation anxiety signs past 12 months and
others go through review phases at the age of 2-3. All part of their individual journey to being a confident resilient child.
First, as a newborn, your infant knows no better than they'll never be
separated from you. On the other hand, at this age, they just don't
remember that you exist when you walk out of the room.
about 4 to 6 months, your baby learns that you and they are different beings
and they also remember you, even if they don't see you. However, they
don't have a sense of time
nor the experience to know that you'll be back soon
. Your baby thinks it's forever :/
Feeling anxious about not having the security of your presence is only
Needless to say that
anxiety at bedtime
can make it harder to settle, or to self-soothe when waking at night.
How to recognize baby separation anxiety
The first step to help your baby through this phase successfully is to
recognize and acknowledge the
anxiety and the legit fear it brings.
Acknowledging the fear will help your little one overcome it.
may not notice at first, and wonder why your baby even if you leave
the room for just two minutes. Something they didn't seem to care about
Or if they're in granny's arms, which they enjoy so much, and you take a
few steps out of sight.
Or if your baby doesn't sleep through the night anymore but frequently wakes
Don't think that your little one is spoiled and tries to get your attention to
The fear is
real and legit. Comforting and reassuring
without dramatizing is the best help you can offer.
9 months old is a typical age when many parents notice a bout of separation anxiety but it can start sooner, and recur at different developmental stages.
How to avoid sleep problems due to separation
first thing we all need to sleep well, is the knowledge that we are
safe and secure. Your goal when dealing with separation
anxiety is to
grow your baby's confidence
in being separated from you. Namely that you'll be back.
Here's what you can do:
Play peek-a-boo and hide-and-seek
a couple of months old, start playing peek-a-boo games regularly: hide
your face and then re-appear, very very likely your baby will giggle in delight!
hide your face for a bit longer each time. Also hide underneath the
table, or behind a door. Watch your little one to see how far you can go.
Or it can be your baby hiding from you. I've yet to meet a kiddie who doesn't adore this game!
Play these games frequently: by seeing you re-appear each time, your baby or toddler
you will be back
even if they don't see you all the time.
understand a lot more of what we say than we realize.
Therefore, it is a good idea to tell them what you will do while they
Show your baby where in the living room you'll be reading a book, where in your office you'll be at the computer, or in
which part of the house you'll be doing chores.
Also, if your little one does not sleep in your room, it is a good idea to make a
visit to your bedroom part of the
. Knowing where you will be at night may be all the
reassurance your baby needs when waking up.
heartbreaking as it may be, do not cry along. If your baby/toddler sees that you
are confident and that
is not a
big deal, that trust will grow in them too.
However, if you cry with them, they'll that that it really is a
bad thing if you're not together all the time.
bedtime this means: go through the bedtime routine as usual,
and leave the room just as confidently as usual. Of course,
comfort and reassure when necessary, but don't hesitate (you may need to 'fake' it till you can make it for a little bit, even the simple act of walking upright and taking a slow deep breath, can be enough).
tasks with your partner of another carer
it's always a good idea to vary who takes
your baby or toddler to bed. This will help your baby
used to not being with the same person all the time
If you breastfeed or if it just works out that way, you may naturally grow into the only person that
brings your baby to bed. By the time you stop nursing and want to have
someone else put your baby to bed, the separation anxiety might be at a peak moment.
You can wait for the worst of the anxiety to pass.
Alternatively, gradually get your baby used to others taking them to bed
by doing it together at first, taking turns, etc.
This is a tiny
but powerful trick, most useful for an older infant of one or towards two
When putting your baby or toddler to bed, and they feel unsure, tell them that you
will come back to check on them soon.
And then do go back, but very quickly, let's say within two minutes (but for some babies, at first, this may need to be 2 seconds - and that's fine because you'll build it up).
This way your little one learns that
do come back when you say so, and quickly
this consistently for a while can be enough to reassure them and you may soon
find your baby asleep by the time you go back.
Heidi Holvoet, PhD, is the founder of the Baby Sleep Advice website and movement, an award-winning author, baby & toddler sleep consultant with 15+ years experience as well as a certified lactation counselor.
Over the years, Heidi has received several awards inluding a Mom's Choice Award (MCA) and National Parenting Awards (NAPPA) for her Baby Sleep Advice website, programs and books. Also, Baby Sleep Advice was awarded "Most Trusted Infant's Sleep Solutions Company 2023" in the Benelux Enterprise Awards 2023.
Heidi continually conducts personal research and participates in continued education and in that way stays up to date with current scientific and pyschosocial infant care.
She is also a member of the Association of Professional Sleep Consultants of which she was one of the earliest contributors. She obtained her PhD degree in physics at the University of Ghent in Belgium.
Heidi is passionate about helping babies and their parents sleep more and better, with her trademark approach that has been proven and praised time and again by parents worldwide to be effective and truly no-tears. Respect for you as a parent and your baby, is at the heart of Heidi's warm and kind support. Her approach always keeps in mind a baby's needs and abilities at any given age, is based on pediatric science and the most up to date knowledge in infant care and sleep science.