Separation Anxiety and The Gradual Retreat Method


The Gradual Retreat Method is a gentle sleep training method which is particularly effective for children experiencing separation anxiety. I’m not sure I can say that Max has ever been a good sleeper – he was a daytime sleep resister who took until 8 months to start sleeping through the night – but when we hit just under 12 months and he started nursery we hit a whole new level of sleep issues as separation anxiety kicked in. He went from a baby who you could put down at night, kiss him goodbye, and leave the room, to a baby who couldn’t stand to watch you leave. Scratch that – he couldn’t even stand not to have you holding him. As long as he could touch your skin and know that you were there he was fine – if you tried to remove his hand from you, the screaming would start. He had had issues with me leaving the room during the day for a long time and in hindsight, I’m pretty sure that starting nursery right at the time that separation anxiety was due to peak was not the smartest move, but I’d been convinced that having him at home with me for as long as possible was the best thing to do.

And this was much harder than the 8 months of sleep deprivation we’d experienced beforehand – at least then he was a very routine-led baby who understood that nighttime was for sleeping and would go straight back off to sleep after a feed. This time round, it would take well over an hour to settle him and quite often a lot longer. We were a very tired pair of parents. And that’s how I came to start researching sleep training techniques.

Controlled crying is probably the most well known sleep training technique, but it’s not one that I felt would work in our situation. The separation anxiety issue made me feel instinctively that controlled crying would not work, and reading through various advice online, many people seemed to agree. I came across the Gradual Retreat Method (or Gradual Withdrawal), which was described as a gentle sleep training method, and one that would work particularly well for babies experiencing separation anxiety.


The Gradual Retreat Method

The method works like this:

  • You position a chair or cushion next to the cot and then place your baby down to sleep before sitting down on the chair / cushion
  • If (or when!) your baby cries, comfort them by patting or stroking them until they are calm, but when you sit back down, move the chair slightly further away from the cot, towards the door
  • If your baby cries again, go to comfort them by patting / stroking, but again, move the chair slightly further away before sitting back down
  • After a number of times of doing this, you’ll find your chair has made it’s way to the door

There is an alternative approach which sees the chair moving slightly further away from the cot each night, but you stay put. I didn’t find that this was going to work for us, but I did start to incorporate elements of this towards the end of our use of the Gradual Retreat, when I experimented with starting the chair’s position slightly further away from the cot.


How it worked for us

I found the Gradual Retreat a hugely time consuming process initially and for the first few weeks it would take well over an hour to settle him – the hardest part being that initial removal of my hand, which he liked to squeeze to comfort himself. In fact, I remember this being quite a painful part of the whole process – he would often pinch my hand really hard! He was also a master of pretending he was asleep – I would try to sneak out of the room as quietly as I good, congratulating myself on a good job, and then all of a sudden he’d be wide awake and all “Where do you think you’re going?” Never congratulate yourself until you’re out of the room (and maybe not even then!)

I remember googling over and over for ‘Gradual Retreat how long does it take’ just for reassurance that it had worked for other people and to give me the hope that it would work. But over time it did start to get quicker and easier and then one day, just out of nowhere, I put him down and thought he seemed pretty settled, so I tried saying goodnight and leaving the room and… it worked! I’d expected that there would be a gradual improvement, but with Max it was like a switch had flipped – he was back to the baby that you could just put down, give a goodbye kiss, and leave. From starting the Gradual Retreat Method it took about 3 months to get to this stage, with two months of it probably not seeing much in the way of progress at all. It was a strange one in that it took a long time to improve, but as soon as there was a little improvement it seemed to snowball.

I still revert back to the Gradual Retreat method whenever we’re having a few separation issues – his return to nursery last week saw him have a bit of a return to not wanting me to leave his room, so I had to use this technique again then. Luckily this time it only took 10 minutes!

If you have a baby whose sleep problems are less about sleep problems and more about separation anxiety, I recommend trying the gradual retreat method – just be prepared to be patient!


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  • Corinne C
    January 15, 2016

    I don’t have kids, but this sounds like a nightmare! I’m glad this seems to have worked for though, even though it takes a long time. Hope it’s something he grows out of soon so you can have less stressful nighttime routines!

    Corinne x

    • Katy
      January 15, 2016

      Thanks for reading Corrine – I hope I’ve not put you off kids for life! I’m not going to lie, it was a flipping nightmare for a while, but he seems to have grown out of it now (touch wood!)

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