How To Handle Your Baby or Toddler’s Separation Anxiety and Sleep Training

Baby or Toddler Separation Anxiety and Sleep

I’ve always thought the term “separation anxiety” wasn’t an adequate one. It sounds kind of clinical and dull, in my opinion. But those of us whose babies and toddlers have experienced separation anxiety (and I’m guessing that’s almost all of us) know that the separation anxiety is anything but dull!

So maybe a term like “separation red-faced-screaming-panic-attack” would be more appropriate? Just throwing it out there. 😉

At any rate, separation anxiety is the topic of today’s article. Specifically, we’ll look at why and when separation anxiety occurs, how it affects sleep, and what you can do to cope with it.

Don’t Worry, Separation Anxiety Is Normal. (In Fact, It’s a Good Sign!)

It might not seem normal for your baby or toddler to cling to your legs, spider-monkey style, and scream until they turn purple, but don’t worry — it’s very normal indeed!

In the first few months of your baby’s life, he’s really not able to distinguish between adults; one caregiver looks and feels much like another. That’s why most newborns and young infants are content to be passed around between adults. Beginning around 7 or 8 months, however, your baby will start being able to tell one adult from another; she’ll also start to become more attached to mom and dad. In this way, separation anxiety is actually a good sign; it indicates that a baby is forming strong, healthy attachments to her parents.

What’s more, at this age, your baby’s starting to develop the concept of object permanence. In the early months of life, babies don’t understand object permanence; once an object (or a person) disappears from their line of sight, it’s simply gone, in their minds. (This is why peek-a-boo tends to be endlessly fascinating for young babies — from their perspective, you’re performing the most incredible magic trick imaginable!) But around 7 or 8 months, babies begin to understand that objects and people they can’t see still exist — they develop object permanence. So when you leave the room, your baby understands that you still exist somewhere and that you can return. Again, in this sense, separation anxiety is actually a positive sign — it lets parents know that their baby understands object permanence.

Nicole’s Note:
“As usual, don’t be alarmed if your baby doesn’t follow the books on this one. My sons were NEVER babies who could be passed around the party! Ever. They didn’t even really go to grandma and grandpa. Not even when they were a couple of weeks old! I don’t know why. I think, somehow, they DID distinguish us from other adults. Somehow. Even with our nanny, who was there on day one with our second-born, he would not go to her until a week or two later and we had to ‘work’ at it. He went to me and his Dad and that was it. He was literally born that way. And, he was the ‘easier’ of the two. Ha! They have both been shy with strangers from the beginning, but now that they are older, they are soooo different! So, if your baby has always seemed to only want you, foster the security in the relationship and the confidence will come.”

What Is Separation Anxiety, and Why Does It Happen?

Separation anxiety starts in the infant stage — somewhere between 6-10 months, for most babies. You may start to notice that your baby clings to you and cries before you leave her with a babysitter, or at naptime and/or bedtime. Often, separation anxiety appears out of the blue — your baby is fine one day and is a clinging, sobbing, terrified mess the next. This is understandably unnerving for a lot of parents!

Separation anxiety rears its head most often when parents are transitioning their babies into daycare, or into the babysitter’s care. But separation anxiety also affects sleep. It can do real damage to a baby’s nap schedule, and it can cause even the best sleeper to start waking frequently at night. And this makes sense; a baby who’s deep in the throes of separation anxiety certainly won’t want to be left alone to nap or to sleep all night. In fact, separation anxiety can be one of the major factors involved in the 8/9/10 month sleep regression.

A Look At Your Toddler’s Separation Anxiety, and How It Affects Sleep

It’s normal for your little one’s separation anxiety to wax and wanes during his toddler years; it may be better at some points and worse at others. (Of course, if your child’s separation anxiety hangs around full-force throughout toddlerhood, that’s normal, too!) Many parents find that separation anxiety resurfaces in a big way around 18 months (coinciding with the 18 month sleep regression) and again around age 2 (again, coinciding with the 2 year sleep regression).

Just as it did in infancy, separation anxiety can really wreck your toddler’s sleep and sleep training your toddler. And it may be even harder to deal with the naptime and bedtime drama this time around since your toddler’s separation anxiety will often manifest as full-blown temper tantrums. Naps may become royal battles. And you might find that your toddler starts fiercely resisting bedtime or crying for you repeatedly during the night.

Some Separation Anxiety Do’s and Don’ts: How To Handle Your Baby or Toddler’s Naptime and Nighttime Separation Anxiety

Yes, separation anxiety’s perfectly normal — and from a developmental standpoint, it’s actually a good sign! But that’s hardly comforting when you’re facing your third week of sleepless nights and microscopic naps, right?

Not to worry — we have tips! These won’t banish separation anxiety forever (it’s a developmental milestone, after all), but they will help to minimize the effects of separation anxiety and make it easier to handle for everyone.

  • DO develop a good bedtime routine. If you haven’t already, work to create a soothing bedtime routine for your baby or toddler. This will help her relax before bed; it will also provide the kind of consistency and predictability that she needs to feel safe.
  • DO keep things light. The last thing a parent wants to do is make their child’s separation anxiety worse. But many parents do just that without realizing it. When you put on a worried and anxious face, or when you cry along with your child, you simply reaffirm to your little one that bedtime is, in fact, terrifying, and that he has every reason to be afraid. Instead, work to keep things light and calm at bedtime and nap time. If you seem relaxed and confident, it’ll help your baby or toddler feel that way, too.
  • DON’T try to sneak away. Parents, this is a big no-no. Yes, in the moment, it seems easier to simply wait until your baby or toddler is drowsy or distracted and then slip out the door. But in the long run, it just makes things worse. It adds to your child’s fear and uncertainty because now, he’s learned that if he so much as looks the other way, you might literally vanish. Instead, say good-bye (lovingly and firmly) and then let your child see you walk out the door.
  • DO comfort your child when she needs it, but DON’T create new (bad) habits. If your baby or toddler is wailing at naptime, or wakes in the middle of the night sobbing and screaming, feel free to comfort her. This is reassuring for your little one; it lets her know that you’re nearby. And it’s reassuring for you, too! However, keep these interactions relatively short and boring. This is not the time to read books, or to sing songs, or to play games. What’s more, make sure that when your comforting is done, you leave. Remember, you don’t want to create bad habits during this phase, so now isn’t the time to start sleeping on your child’s floor, or sitting in a rocker next to her bed.

For more information about separation anxiety, and to learn how it’s different from the more serious Separation Anxiety Disorder, see Dr. Kaylene Henderson’s excellent post on the topic over at her website, Little Children Big Dreams.

Separation Anxiety Ruining Your Baby or Toddler’s Sleep? We Can Help!

Separation anxiety can do a number on your baby or toddler’s sleep. Fortunately, we can help! Our consultants at The Baby Sleep Site® specialize in creating Personalized Sleep Plans® that are customized to your own parenting philosophy and your child’s temperament, and that will NEVER make you feel guilty or pressured. Even better, once you have your Personalized Sleep Plan™, your consultant will walk you through each step of implementing it at home.

Browse our list of consultation package options here.

Once you make your choice and purchase, you will immediately receive an e-mail with your Helpdesk login information. You’ll be able to log in and get started right away!

Want more information about how personalized help works? Check out our FAQ page here, and get answers.

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102 thoughts on “How To Handle Your Baby or Toddler’s Separation Anxiety and Sleep Training”

  1. Hi there,
    My 9 month old is experiencing separation anxiety exclusively at nap and bedtime. We’re certain it’s separation anxiety because she calms immediately after picking her up and cries as soon as we put her down.
    We had previously sleep trained (when she was 6 months old) using the extinction method and she was a wonderful sleeper-but are now unsure what to do now. We’re going in and comforting but it’s taking an hour for her to eventually exhaust herself and sleep. Are we doing the right thing?

    • Hi @Lauren – Thank you for writing to us, and so sorry to hear that your baby is struggling with sleep and separation! We know how hard this is, so hang in there Lauren! She may need a little reassurance during awake times, and a reminder that she can fall asleep on her own! it sounds like you do not want to do the extinction method again/now, which is completely fine! But I also suspect that you do not want to spend a full hour before every sleep helping her to sleep either. You can find balance and find what works for you all, and this article may help iwth some outlines on how you might proceed:
      We know that this can be a tough time, and if you’d like our help with this, please contact us so we can share more info about our offerings and what may be the best fit for you and your family, or you can check out our one on one consulting options here:

  2. I have a 22 month old and for the last 3 weeks he has been waking numerous times throughout the night just screaming. He calms down as soon as one of us goes in there but loses his mind the minute we leave. We don’t pick him up but calming telling him to lay down and go back to sleep. He will do this eventually if we sit in the chair in his room. But the minute we stand up to leave it starts over again. I would say this happens most nights out of the week. I never went through this with my twins who are now almost 4. This will go on for hours at night until we give up and sleep in the chair while he happily stays in his crib. But we are exhausted, he is exhausted and no one is happy right now.

    • Hi Kim,
      Thank you for your comment! I’m so sorry to hear you’re struggling with these tough night wakings 🙁 They sound awful! Unfortunately, there a ton of things that could be causing night waking like you’re describing: a scheduling issue, nap trouble, a sleep association, etc. We’d need more information to be sure. If you’re a member, I’d encourage you to log-on to one of the member chats with a senior sleep consultant – she could definitely help! Otherwise, I’d really encourage you to look at the sleep consultation packages, so a sleep consultant could review your son’s entire schedule, bedtime routine, feeding, etc., and help you root out what’s going on and how to solve it. Please hang in there, and let us know if you have any questions!

  3. Hi,

    Thank you for all the great articles! My baby is going through the 6-month wonder week and has severe separation anxiety–my previously-independent little girl wants to just be on me all the time all of a sudden. We were planning to start sleep training this week, but should we avoid it while she is going through this? Thank you!

    • Hi Joan,
      Thank you for being a loyal reader – I’m glad our articles have helped your family! There’s really no “right” answer to your question – it just depends on your family, your baby, and how urgent sleep coaching feels for you. Our usual recommendation is that it’s safe to sleep coach through separation anxiety, sleep regressions, teething, etc – with babies, there’s always something! But, if you don’t feel comfortable and would rather wait, you certainly can. I hope that helps, and good luck!

  4. My 7 month old was taking 2 naps a day for 1.5 to 2 hours each nap. All of the sudden she will not nap at all or it will be for like 20 min. She is so tired and cranky but will not sleep. I don’t know what to do. Do I let her cry it out, Do I go in lay her back down every so often. I am so lost on what to do.

  5. Hi, I’m Pascal.

    So my 20 month year old needed to be sleep trained at 10 months. We chose to check on him and comfort him in increasing intervals. He started to climb out of his crib at 18 months, so he now sleeps in a toddler bed with a railing system. He has recently started to demand sleeping with my spouse in-order to fall asleep. We have tried several methods such as sleeping next to him, we went back to the interval training and even tried to let him cry it out. Nothing seems to work. It seems like more separation from my spouse. He clearly calls for “Momma” and throws full tantrums. Thoughts?

    • Hi @Pascal – Thanks for writing to us! Sorry to hear that your toddler has been having some sleep issues since transitioning to a toddler bed! This is a common occurrence, especially with younger toddlers, and separation anxiety can make this even tougher – you’re not alone! This article has some tips on how to help keep your toddler in their bed:
      For additional help, I’d recommend that you consider our e-Book, The 5 Step System to Better Toddler Sleep. It is written specifically to help parents of toddlers with sleep issues just like these!
      You can find out more about this ebook, and order the book directly online here:
      I hope that things smooth out soon! Please contact us if you need any assistance at any time!

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