Separation anxiety is one of the hardest things about having a baby. It occurs when an infant gets too attached to its caregiver and doesn’t want them to leave. Not only is it frustrating for the baby, but it can also be stressful for both you and your partner.

The challenge becomes even more troublesome when you’re trying to sleep train a child with separation anxiety. 

How do you do it? Is there an easy way? Here are 6 tips for sleep training a baby with separation anxiety that worked for many parents.

What is separation anxiety?

Separation anxiety disorder (SAD) is one of the most common childhood anxiety disorders that is a normal part of childhood. It usually occurs in infants and children aged four to 18 months. The symptoms may include being more clingy than usual and crying when the caregiver tries to leave.

Children experience separation when their caregiver leaves them, such as dropping them off at daycare or leaving for work.

In a nutshell, it means that your child is securely attached to you as his caregiver. Though separation anxiety can be managed with patience, it can also make life very difficult for parents and babies alike. While separating babies is an inevitable part of childhood, there are ways to make it easier.

What are the causes of separation anxiety?

Separation anxiety is a normal part of childhood and often goes away with time. 

It usually happens when the child develops a sense of “object permanence,” which generally occurs between 4-7 months of age. In other words, the child learns that even though an object or a person is out of sight, they still exist. 

So when mom or dad leaves the child to go to work, the child is aware that his caregivers have gone away and left him all alone. As children don’t yet understand the concept of time, they have no way of knowing when or whether their caregiver will come back. 

For example, let’s say you leave your child with a sitter for the evening. Since he has developed a sense of object permanence, he knows you’ve left him. Consequently, he will react by crying, being clingy, and resisting attention from others. 

In some cases, separation anxiety can be triggered by certain life stresses, such as moving to a new home, a new sibling, or a new caregiver.

Now that I’ve explained what separation anxiety is and its main causes, let’s take a look at six tips for sleep training a baby with separation anxiety. 

sleep training a baby with separation anxiety

Strategies to sleep train a child with separation anxiety

I’m not going to lie and say that separation anxiety is not challenging for the caregiver. But I’m here to tell you that it’s perfectly normal.

Even better, I want to offer a few tips for sleep training a baby with separation anxiety. These tips might not help your child overcome his anxiety overnight, but they can help make separation anxiety easier to handle for everyone in the family. 

Develop a good bedtime routine

The first item on our list for sleep training a baby with separation anxiety is to establish a good bedtime routine. This will help your baby understand when it is time to sleep and what this means. A good way to do this is by doing things like putting him down at the same time each evening, turning off any bright lights, getting his diaper and clothes ready beforehand, and singing a lullaby. This will help him relax and create a sense of predictability and consistency to make him feel safe. 

Comfort your child when he needs it

There will be cries and fusses. You will feel exhausted and agitated. Some nights, you might even feel tempted to pick him up and rock him to sleep. I’m here to tell you to avoid creating bad habits – this can be detrimental in the long term.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying that you shouldn’t provide comfort and reassurance. By all means, do go to his room to offer words of comfort or even pat him on the back if he wakes up at night screaming. 

However, make sure these interactions are short and boring. Avoid playing games, singing songs, or rocking him to sleep. This is not the time to start co-sleeping with your child or sit in a rocker next to his crib.

Reinforce object permanence

As we’ve explained earlier, separation anxiety appears when your child learns of object permanence.

Where are you when he can’t see you? Will you return, or did you leave for good?

One way of making this newly learned concept easier for your child is to add a fun element to it. For instance, playing peekaboo can be helpful. The goal is to reinforce the concept that you will always return even though he can’t see you.

Introduce a comfort object

Does your child have a lovey or another comfort item? If not, now is the time to introduce him to one. 

Loveys can be an amazing comfort item that your child can hold on to during bedtime, naptime, or daycare. 

If your little one is younger than one, make sure you consult with your pediatrician first about letting him sleep with a comfort object in the crib. 

sleep training a baby with separation anxiety

Choose a gentle sleep training method

The next tip for sleep training a baby with separation anxiety is this: use a gentler sleep training method.

If your child is dealing with a more severe case of separation anxiety, sleep training him using a gentler method is a smart move. 

Gentle sleep training can be a great way to teach your baby how to sleep independently while dealing with his anxiety at the same time. 

If bedtime and naptime have become a never-ending battle, go with a gentler method that will teach your child how to self-soothe in small gradual steps. 

Finally, know that this is a normal developmental phase

Separation anxiety doesn’t indicate that you’re doing anything wrong as a parent. It’s a normal part of development that most children go through. If anything, it’s an indicator of how well you have bonded with your little one. Generally, the condition tends to fade away after a few months. During the process, your child will learn how to deal with his feelings and understand that even though you sometimes leave him, you will always come back.