If someone could create a living example of separation anxiety in a toddler, my little girl would be your case study. Before having my daughter I couldn’t have truly understood how children so young can struggle with such strong fears with seemingly no known cause. Then after learning and growing along beside my daughter, I realized that this can happen. My baby was just so scared of being out of my sight.
Then when I went back to work when she was 12 months old this became more problematic. I worked 12 hour shifts and wasn’t home to put her to bed every night—- which lead to frequent night wakings—- which lead to her needing to be soothed back to sleep a few times a night for a year—- which lead to me feeling exhausted, guilty and anxious myself.
The good news was that she eventually worked through it, but it was a lot of trial and error. Here are a few points to consider when you’re dealing with a baby who misses you.
Consider Their Developmental Milestones
Babies and toddlers have very frequent night wakings when they are learning a new skill. Rolling, crawling, standing, walking and talking are huge developmental milestones for kids. Think about how excited you would be if you had to get everywhere on four limbs for your entire life, and one day you woke up with the ability to walk. It would be life changing— and who wants to sleep when something so exciting is happening. Babies often practice and practice these skills between sleep cycles because their brain is growing so quickly. Sometimes they are not even awake, they are just working on skills in their sleep.
To combat these sleep issues, the key is practice practice practice, but during the day! Spend extra time developing the skill with your baby so they are focusing less on this at night. Give him the opportunity to walk as much as possible. Practice new words with pictures so they retain the image quickly— and communicate this with their new care provider so they can be a part of you little one’s learning.
Secondly, wait a few minutes before you go in the room when he wakes at night. Your baby may be between sleep cycles and if you stimulate him, he will have a full wake up.
Try Not To Create New Sleep Props
A toddler can form a habit lickity-split. One night of rocking back to sleep or the extra bottle very quickly will turn into many nights of this. Watch what your reaction is to the night time wakings too. As moms we live with a lot of guilt (especially about work!), and they can pick up on this. As hard as it is, stay consistent to what your bedtime routine was before you went back to work, as well as what your routine was at night. Do what works for you. And remember that its only a problem if you think it’s a problem. (some moms really don’t mind getting up a few times a night, some moms do… do what works for your family).
Speak with your child care provider
If you have just gone back to work, the stress of childcare and separation anxiety can be like torture on a mom. I would discuss this with your daycare or care provider and explain how many times he’s been getting up at night. Discuss a napping schedule and what it looks like in the new environment and ask if they are able to accommodate the same nap schedule as at home. Your toddler might be more tired for the first few months of childcare and need two naps a day— this will make a difference to their nighttime sleeping if they’re overtired and exhausted come bedtime because they’ve only been getting one nap at daycare.
Know that this is just a phase
I have a personal motto with parenting— everything is a phase. Everything great is a phase, everything not-so-great is a phase. Changes are hard for kids and toddlers and this unfortunately will be the biggest problem at 4am.
Showing him that you will follow through with everything you say you are going to do will be a game changer for this one. He will learn that when mommy leaves, mommy comes back because she says she will. He learns that when mommy says no cookies, she means no cookies, because that’s an action as well. Kids love boundaries so they know what to expect. Having a toddler with separation anxiety has taught me to never say something that I don’t plan on executing. This has bit me in the bum a few times but I work really hard at doing this and it pays off in the long run, even if we have to leave a playdate when I was enjoying it more than her.
Accept what they are feeling
The fact is, some kids just really love being around their moms and dads. All kids do actually. But some express this through separation anxiety and some express this in other ways.
Being anxious is not a weakness, even in a toddler. There are so many wonderful traits of anxious people (high levels of empathy, for one). As a tired mom, I often would get frustrated that she wasn’t as secure as other kids, she didn’t run and play immediately, or she would cry when she was faced with a new challenge. When I began to admire these traits in her personality and accept them, I noticed that she reacted differently and the anxiety decreased.
What I want you to remember is that you are doing everything right. You’re changing too and these stages are so hard. You’ll both learn what works for you and your family via your trial and error, and I am here to help if you need support!
If you’re interested in talking further about your toddler’s sleep, give me a call. I would love to help.