Here’s a list of tips and tricks you can use to help manage your baby’s or small child’s separation anxiety at nap or bed time:
For your Baby
The principles behind managing separations for babies and toddlers are similar. For babies the tips are understandably simpler and more basic. For example, it doesn’t do much good to try and reason with a baby. Reasons and explanations don’t work. When you are dealing with an emotional or psychological phenomenon like anxiety, reason is basically useless. I recommend keeping it to a minimum.
Need a SLEEP COACH?
- Maintain a Consistent Caregiver. As with any sleep recommendation, consistency and predictability are incredibly important for managing anxiety surrounding separation. Try to have the same person put the child down for bed and naps. If there is a non-parental caregiver in the house, that person should be the designated “sleep person.”
- Keep Surroundings Familiar. Consistency, consistency, consistency! Try to put the baby down in the same place, surrounded by the same things. This isn’t always possible for a baby or small child who must sleep in different places because of family circumstances. If so, a transitional object is essential.
- Play Peek-a-Boo: The classic game that babies love to play when they develop object permanence. It teaches them that mom is still there even when she “leaves.”
For your Toddler/Small Child
As a baby transitions into toddlerhood, you may need to deploy some slightly more sophisticated tricks to help make separation time less stressful.
- Create a Goodbye Ritual. Rituals and games are powerful tools to maintain consistency. It can be a special kiss, a special wave. I find that songs make for fabulous rituals. And of course, in many families, prayers are important bedtime rituals. They work at nap time too!
- Eliminate the Scary (or even Funny!) Books and Videos. Any medium that’s too stimulating at bedtime will heighten a child’s separation anxiety, and that goes for funny material as well! People tend to confuse laughter with happiness and contentedness. But humor doesn’t make you happy, and laughter is not an expression of contentedness! I’d go with boring and reassuring at bedtime, rather than funny.
- Leave Without Fanfare. This is especially important at nap time. Once the ritual is done, turn around and leave. No extras, no flourishes. Less is more.
- Remind the Toddler that You Always Return. This provides me an opportunity to say a word about the proper use of pronouns. Too many parents feel compelled to say things like “Mommy always comes back”. “Mommy is always here for you.” I understand why parents do this: Pronouns are difficult. People learning new languages have a tough time with pronouns. It’s no different with toddlers. Here’s the thing: they understand the meaning of “I” and “You”, even if they get them wrong when they try to use those pronouns. Trust me on this one, folks: if you use the pronoun “I” with your child, she will understand what you mean. You do not need to refer to yourself in the third person. This is a guarantee.
- Don’t Give In. Not giving in is the key to consistency at separation time. If you give in to the baby’s crying or to the toddler’s “negotiations”, you can sabotage all your efforts. Be strong! You can do this!
Tips and Tricks for For YOU
It’s much easier to manage your child’s separation anxiety when you’ve learned to manage your own anxiety. It turns out the things you can do to help yourself are good for your overall health and well-being as well. Each element helps reinforce the others: give it a shot!
- Eat Right. What does that mean? Meat and vegetables, nuts and seeds, some fruit, grains rarely, sugar never. Do your shopping around the outside edge of the supermarket: that’s where the real food is. Dip into the aisles only in desperation. Don’t make a habit of it. There is no real food in there!
- Regular Exercise. And ideally it should be vigorous: Something that gets your heart rate up. Aim for six days a week, minimum 3. The important thing is that you do something. It may help to learn a new sport and play! Some day it might just be something you can do with your kids (just be prepared to be beaten by them, even when you’re trying. It happens.)
- Get Enough Sleep Yourself. One can’t over-emphasize this. Sleep is one of the pillars on which all of good health stands. You need at least 7 hours. Try to get to bed at the same time every night, just like your children. All the sleep rules and parameters that apply to your kids apply to you as well!
- Reduce Stress. Easier said than done? Sure. Impossible, no. There is always something in life you can let go of. Sometimes it’s big like a job. Sometimes it’s something small like that radio show about money management that stresses you out about money but you can’t stop listening because you’re addicted. Sure, you can stop listening. Just. Stop. Listening. Once you learn to let go of a stressor, it becomes easier to let go of others. Some people get into yoga or meditation. It’s not for everyone. It’s certainly not a substitute for health diet, vigorous exercise, and restful sleep. But it’s worth a shot.