Does your toddler have sudden separation anxiety at bedtime? Learn how to handle this sleep regression and get her to sleep well once again!
What is going on? You wonder.
Your toddler had always been a good sleeper, but suddenly, she stopped being able to sleep on her own. Whereas you used to be able to put her in her crib drowsy, she now clings to you and refuses to lie down. Instead, she spends the evening jumping up and down, crying the entire time.
And forget about sleeping through the night. She now wakes two or three times and can’t go back to sleep unless you rock and hold her. Even staying in the room doesn’t calm her down—she has to actually touch you to fall asleep.
You knew that separation anxiety was normal among toddlers, but its sudden onset at bedtime has come as a surprise. No one in the family is getting any rest. And memories of sleep deprivation come rushing back, making you worry that you’re back to those newborn days again.
When your toddler has sudden separation anxiety at bedtime
It’s never easy dealing with a toddler and sudden separation anxiety at bedtime. You feel cruel for “leaving” your child alone, afraid that she feels abandoned each time you close the door. You teeter between holding your ground and providing the comfort she needs.
I can certainly relate.
My toddler had been sleeping through the night since he was six months old, leading me to think that we’d forever have our nights to ourselves.
But then, instead of being able to fall asleep on his own, he suddenly couldn’t seem to do it, and would cry hysterically for a long time. Out of nowhere, the only way to get him to fall asleep was for us to be in the room with him.
I didn’t want to start any habits like staying in his room for an hour before he fell asleep. I also knew that he’d wake up and cry for us again, whereas I wanted him to sleep through the night. Waking up multiple times made me feel like a newborn mom all over again.
If you can relate, you’re not alone. More importantly, you can try a few methods to ease your toddler back to sleeping on her own, all while being mindful of the anxiety she feels. Take a look at these tips to learn how:
1. Have a bedtime routine
You may not be able to control your toddler’s anxieties, but you can prevent them in the first place. And one of the best places to start is with a consistent bedtime routine.
The reason routines are so effective is because they build habits and expectations that become automatic. By doing the same things at the same time and in the same order, your child doesn’t have to wonder what’s coming up next.
When every night looks the same, she can divert her energy into other, more productive thoughts and activities. The consistency also provides a gentle familiarity that can soothe the anxieties she might have.
A few ways to have a consistent bedtime routine include:
- Putting her down at the same time every night
- Doing the same bedtime activities, like bathing and reading books
- Going through the same motions within each activity, like shampooing first before scrubbing her body
- Saying the same goodnight farewells, like “Good night, sleep tight!”
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2. Modify your toddler’s environment
Could a few simple tweaks to your toddler’s sleep environment help with her separation anxiety? Sometimes all it takes are a few changes to ease her worries and help her sleep well once again.
For instance, you could plug a simple nightlight in her room so that she isn’t left alone in the dark. Or you can move her nightlight so that it doesn’t cast scary shadows that could be frightening her. Maybe you give her a stuffed animal specifically for sleep, a special item to clutch as a comfort.
You can also offer to keep the hallway light on so she can see it peeking beneath the door, or leave the door a few inches open so she doesn’t feel so enclosed. Maybe she gets to sleep with a special item of yours, like an old stuffed animal or even your pillow, to remind her that you’re nearby.
And lastly, spend fun, quality time in her room during the day. That way, she feels like she’s falling asleep in a familiar room, especially after hanging out and playing in it earlier.
3. Do strategic check-ins
In order for your toddler to learn how to fall asleep on her own, she has to be given the chance to do so. Allowing her to sleep in your bed or staying in her room all night only enables habits you may not want to keep down the line.
But then, of course, you’re worried about causing her distress, especially since she seems to struggle being apart from you. What can you do?
Do strategic check-ins.
When you lay her down, do so from a loving place, reminding her that you believe she can do this. If she’s crying, set your timer for five minutes. When the timer goes off, go into her room to remind her that you’re still here, and that she’s doing a good job sleeping on her own.
Keep these check-ins brief, around 30 seconds. The goal isn’t to calm her down so much as to remind her that you’re here. Try not to pick her up or linger for long. Of course, if she needs a diaper change or she’s standing up, then yes, you’ll need to pick her up. But for the most part, keep it brief.
Do the same at 10 minutes, again at 15 minutes, and in 15-minute intervals thereafter, should you need to. If she’s not crying, then you can celebrate that she fell asleep on her own.
Should she cry in the middle of the night, do the same process, checking in at 5, 10, and 15 minute intervals until she falls asleep. You’re giving her a chance to fall asleep on her own, but checking in on her so she doesn’t think you’re gone.
4. Gradually ease yourself out
Does hearing your toddler cry wrench your heart? Another option is to ease yourself out of her room.
Let’s say she insists that you sit next to her bed until she falls asleep. Agree to do so, but explain that you’ll be moving farther away each night until you’re out of the room.
So, on the second night, move the chair a foot away from her bed. The next night, you’ll move it another foot, making your way toward the door. Once you’re by the door, sit the chair in the hallway with the door ajar.
Another idea is to reduce the time you spend in her room.
When my eldest was transitioning to a toddler bed, my husband slept on the floor next to him the entire night. By the next night, he said he’d stay there until the middle of the night. Then, he stayed until my son fell asleep, and from there, for 30 minutes, before finally being able to say good night and leave.
By easing yourself out of the room, your toddler can slowly adjust to sleeping on her own.
5. Be consistent with the method you choose
Dealing with a crying toddler in the middle of the night—or even at bedtime—can be a challenge, especially when you’re exhausted. It’s so much easier to cave in and let her sleep in your bed like she asked, or even to snap at her and get angry.
Instead, be intentional with what you plan to do, and stick to it. Having a plan will make you less likely to veer off course, especially when you know why you’re doing it. Give yourself several days to stay consistent, and don’t abandon your plan because it didn’t go well the first night.
The more consistent you are, the stronger the message you’re sending. That you won’t cave and eventually come get her because she cried long enough.
A toddler with sudden separation anxiety at bedtime can come as a surprise, leaving parents worried that they’re back to feeling sleep deprived. Rest assured that this sleep regression is common for many kids, and, more importantly, that you can do something about it.
To start, implement a solid bedtime routine to ease your toddler’s extreme anxieties. Change her environment, from adding a nightlight to leaving the door open, to help her feel more confident. Do strategic check-ins to give her a chance to fall asleep on her own.
And if that’s not your style, you can gradually ease your way out of her room, whether inching your way out or shortening the time you’re there. No matter what you decide, be consistent, at least for several days, instead of caving in the first night it gets hard.
Your toddler can go back to being a good sleeper, even if this hiccup seemed to have happened so suddenly.
Get more tips:
- What to Do When Your Toddler Suddenly Won’t Sleep
- 7 Proven Strategies to Handle Bedtime Tantrums
- What to Do When Your Toddler Wakes Up Every Night
- Top 6 Tips to Get Through the Toddler Sleep Regression
- What to Do When Your Toddler Is Hysterical at Bedtime
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