Separation anxiety and your baby's sleep patterns

You're allowed to feel just a little smug when your baby finally settles into a regular nap routine and sleeps through the night. Whether it was a rough ride or as easy as pie, it's definitely an achievement - for all of you! So what is going on when your baby suddenly starts waking up screaming in the night? Cherin Abdelaal Selim and Shelley Zintl of Child and Family Psychology Services in Canterbury, respond.

Question: My baby is 8 months old and had a regular pattern of sleeping at night from 7pm to 7am, with 3 naps of 45 minutes each in the day. Over the past month or so she has started to wake up screaming each evening after we've put her to sleep for the night. I've checked for hunger, dirty nappy and burps, and found that she will only go back to sleep if we sit in her room for about 30 minutes rubbing her tummy and humming. Is she experiencing night terrors? Are they normal and is there anything I can do to prevent them?

The first thing that springs to mind when there is a sudden change in an 8-month olds’ sleeping pattern is separation anxiety. This developmental milestone typically begins at 6-7 months when a baby begins to identify familiar and unfamiliar people, and seek closeness to the most familiar person, typically their mother. The development of separation anxiety demonstrates that your baby has formed a healthy, loving attachment to you. It’s a sign that your baby associates pleasure, comfort, and security with your presence. It also indicates that your baby is developing intellectually (in other words, she’s smart!) She’s learned that she can have an effect on her world when she makes her needs known, and she doesn’t have to passively accept a situation that makes her uncomfortable. But she doesn’t know enough about the world yet to understand that when you leave her, you’ll always come back. This stage, like so many others in childhood, will pass, and your baby will learn that she can separate from you, that everything will be okay, and that you will return.
With regards to your question around the possibility of night terrors, this is very unlikely firstly because of your daughter’s age and secondly because she actually settles when you attend to her. Night terrors tend to occur around the age of 2 to 3 years and children tend not to calm in response to their parents’ comfort. 
In your case, you can prevent what we call “behavioural” sleep disturbances by reducing the amount of time you spend attending to your daughter and the degree of comfort that you are currently providing when she is going to sleep. It is absolutely okay to check on her at regular periods and reassure her but you are best to avoid being present when she falls asleep and providing her with an additional comfort as she will come to rely on this. It’s also best for children to fall asleep on their own as this is the first step in emotional self-regulation and will prevent her becoming distressed during the night. As you can imagine, it would be quite distressing to go to sleep with your primary caregiver there and wake during the night only to find them gone.



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