Does your toddler show signs of separation anxiety at night? Learn how to overcome this challenging sleep regression and help your child sleep well.
Tell me if this sounds familiar:
Your child had been sleeping well, but now she’s upset every time you put her down. She frequently wakes up several times at night, calling for you. She kicks and flails, hysterical and not ready to sleep.
Sometimes she even screams as soon as she’s in the crib or when you leave the room. Picking her up stops the bedtime tantrums, but you can’t hold her the entire night. You might even find yourself sleeping on the floor next to her, then sneaking out of the room once she’s finally asleep.
As much as her separation anxiety at night is breaking your heart, you dread how hysterical she gets at bedtime.
Coping with your child’s separation anxiety at night
Trust me, I can relate.
I’m very familiar with sneaking out of the room ninja-style, hoping my toddler wouldn’t hear me leave. Because the minute he realized I was gone, he’d go right back to screaming for me to come back and keep him company.
It also didn’t help that I couldn’t sleep at night, anticipating the cries that had grown all too common.
Thankfully, separation anxiety at night doesn’t last forever. It’s often a developmental milestone, a stage of toddler sleep regression that will pass. Another reason could be the physical circumstances that make it harder for them to sleep through the night on their own, such as teething or an ear infection.
To help your child along, you can take an active role in helping her overcome her fears and equip her with ways to cope. These are the top tips that worked for me, and I hope they can work for you as well:
1. Practice being separate during the day
One of the reasons your child might be anxious at night is because he already feels that way during the daytime.
He’s clinging to you when you’re together, refusing to let you go for simple or quick breaks. Even the times you’re apart may not be enough, since he goes right back to being too attached once you’re reunited.
What can you do? Practice being separate even when you’re together.
Nurture independent play so he reaps the internal benefits of being on his own. Avoid hovering and instead, give him more autonomy, only stepping in when necessary. Play peek a boo as a way to teach object permanence. Have him take naps in his room while you’re elsewhere in the house.
You can also encourage attachment to other adults and caregivers, like weekend park outings with grandma. That way, he gets used to having others, and not just you, around.
The more you can help him through separation anxiety during the day, the better he can learn to cope with it at night.
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2. Create a positive sleep environment
Have you sent your toddler away to her room for misbehaving? Do you hardly spend time in her room during the day?
How she feels about his room can contribute to her separation anxiety at night. Getting time-outs in her room and feeling unfamiliar with it don’t bring the comforts and calm she needs to fall asleep.
Focus on creating a positive sleep environment instead. Start by playing regularly in her room so she can begin associating positive memories with it. Stop using it as punishment so she knows it’s a safe and happy place to be.
Then, make sure her room is equipped for happy sleep. Keep her bed comfortable, add a night light to ease fears of the dark, and play white noise to muffle startling sounds she might hear.
By making her bedroom a soothing and positive place to be, you’re helping her have a better chance to sleep in it.
3. Follow a consistent bedtime routine
Disruptions and unpredictability make toddlers feel more anxious, including about their sleep.
They might not know what time they’re going to sleep, or where, or how long. Instead of relaxing into sleep, they’re focusing their energy on anticipating the next change that might happen.
That’s why it’s important to create consistency with a bedtime routine. Start bedtime “rituals” of doing the same things in the same order. This can include taking a bath, toweling up, putting on pajamas, and reading books (perhaps a few anxiety books for kids).
And do them at the same time every night, sticking to a consistent time to sleep. Even if your toddler can’t tell time, her body knows when to expect to sleep, and for how long. Consistency can bring a reassuring familiarity to what can feel like an overwhelming part of her day.
Bonus tip: Before bed, ask her what her favorite part of the day was. Talking about something that makes her happy right before sleep can change her mindset and get her sleep off to a good start.
4. Stay calm and confident
It’s easy to get upset and lose your cool when your toddler has once again woken up in the middle of the night.
Thing is, the way you feel rubs off on him. Feeling impatient might make him feel bad about himself, while anxiety could be “proof” that confirms his bedroom isn’t the best place to be.
Either way, it’s pretty difficult for him to fall asleep when you’re anxious and upset. Imagine yourself in the same shoes—it’s not exactly a calm and peaceful environment to fall asleep.
Because what seems like a reasonable time apart—we are asleep for most of the night, after all—can feel like an eternity for him. Parents forget that saying goodnight can seem like saying goodbyes for a long period of time.
Instead, project the calm and confidence he needs to see and feel. Reassure him through your demeanor that he’s safe and that you know what you’re doing. Focusing on your mood also makes you less likely to lose your temper and be more patient, reminding you that he needs you most at times like these.
5. Comfort your child—strategically
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Separation anxiety at night is tricky. On one hand, you want to provide the comfort that can calm your child, but on the other, you want to avoid setting unsustainable habits.
Because let’s face it: as easy as it is to stop him from shedding tears by holding him all night, it’s also unrealistic to do that from here on out.
So, how do you balance this tricky line? Here are a few ways:
- Acknowledge his emotions as valid feelings
- Reassure him that all is well and he is safe
- Teach him ways to cope with his big feelings
Start by showing empathy and validating his feelings. He wants to feel heard and understood, not brushed aside as petty or small. Let him know that you’ve also felt afraid sometimes, and that all people feel this way.
Then, reassure him that he’s safe, that you’re right in the next room, and that just because he can’t see you, it doesn’t mean you’re not there.
Finally, show him how to cope with these big emotions. Encourage him to think of something that made him happy. Let him sing or talk to himself or find a comfortable position to sleep in. Give him a comfort item like a lovey or a blanket he can hold while he sleeps.
You can even bring his comfort item with you when you’re cuddling during the day so he can better associate it with you.
And when you do go into his room when he cries for mommy or daddy, keep your check-ins brief. The longer you stay, the harder it can be for him to eventually accept falling asleep in his room.
Instead, check in every few minutes so he knows you’re still here, but that you do intend to sleep in your room while he sleeps in his.
6. Don’t sneak out of your child’s room
It’s tempting to sneak out once your child is asleep and head back to your room. After all, you might buy yourself a few hours of sleep before he wakes up frantic again.
But doing so only confirms his fears that you’ll disappear the minute he falls asleep.
If you do agree to stay in his room until he falls asleep, let him know that it’s only for tonight, and that you plan to go back to your room. Remind him that when he wakes up you’ll be back in your bed, so he knows what to expect.
Separation anxiety at night is can be challenging in toddlerhood. You’re set on sleeping yourself, and might even be woken up half-asleep throughout the night.
Help your toddler ease nighttime separation anxiety by practicing independent play and alone time during the day. Create a positive sleep environment in her room, and follow a consistent bedtime routine so she feels less anxious about what to expect.
Acknowledge her feelings as valid while teaching her how to cope with them. Reassure her that she’s safe right where she is, and avoid sneaking out of the room.
And finally, remain calm and confident throughout all your interactions. She’ll model your behavior and have an easier time falling asleep instead of being upset or confused.
Hopefully, as with many aspects of raising kids, this is a phase that will pass soon enough. And all without sneaking out of your toddler’s room, ninja-style.
Get more tips:
- 9 Useful Techniques for Dealing with Anxiety in Children
- 11 Children’s Books about Separation Anxiety
- What You Need to Know About Separation Anxiety
- What to Do When Your Toddler Wakes Up Every Night
- When Your Toddler Has Sudden Separation Anxiety at Bedtime
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