What is toddler separation anxiety, and why do some toddlers experience this at bedtime?
Bedtime can be a wonderful time of the day, a time to cuddle with your child, read a bedtime story together and enjoy spending some quiet time together.
If on the other hand, you have a toddler that has started to experience separation anxiety at bedtime, then it can be a stressful time.
Your toddler may have been a great sleeper when suddenly they are afraid to sleep alone, and bedtime becomes what feels like a never-ending struggle.
What Is Separation Anxiety?
Separation anxiety is a normal fear a child experiences when they are away from their parents or carers. Separation anxiety starts somewhere between 6 – 10 months for most babies. You might have noticed when your child was still a baby that they went through phases of being clingy, especially if you left them with a caregiver or family member.
It may have felt like it appeared out of nowhere. Your baby may have been perfectly fine one day and then clinging and crying the next.
Separation anxiety tends to come and go throughout the toddler years with some toddlers experiencing full-blown separation anxiety throughout toddlerhood.
Why Does Separation Anxiety Happen?
When your baby is first born, they really cannot distinguish between one caregiver or another. That is why newborns are more than happy to be passed around from one doting family member to another without much fuss.
However, as they start to get older, this ability to distinguish one adult from another develops, and they naturally become more attached to Mum and Dad.
Whilst separation anxiety is stressful for us as parents; it is a good sign as it shows that your baby is developing a strong and healthy attachment to you.
Parents often find that separation anxiety surfaces when there is a significant life change. Any of the following can cause separation anxiety:
This does not mean that you should go around trying to avoid these events. Ultimately you cannot prevent life from happening.
Is Separation Anxiety Normal?
Believe it or not, separation anxiety can be traced back to our hunter-gatherer ancestors.
Had our ancestors left their children alone, they would have been vulnerable to potential predators. This was especially true at night. Fear evolved to keep children safe and close, and this instinctive fear remains with children today.
So although it may not seem normal for your baby or toddler to cling to you, hide behind you or cry and scream until they are red in their face – it is very normal indeed.
Separation anxiety is a normal part of your child's development and is not a cause for concern. Separation anxiety keeps your child safe. If they did not have a fear of separation for strangers, then they would be far more likely to crawl or walk away from you or their carer and get lost more easily.
Toddler Separation Anxiety at Bedtime
Even toddlers who are well-adjusted and may have been in day-care or with other carers since infancy can still experience anxiety when separated from their parents.
Toddler separation anxiety at bedtime is quite common, especially around the age of 2.
By two years old, children start to become aware of all kinds of things that can cause them distress before bedtime. Bedtime means that:
So, your two-year-old starts resisting bedtime.
Unfortunately, toddler separation anxiety at bedtime can wreak havoc on your toddler's sleep. Naptime and bedtime can result in full-blown meltdowns. You may find that your toddler even wakes multiple times at night crying for you.
It is important to remember that your toddler is not merely difficult. Whilst the things they are afraid of (monsters, Mum abandonment) are not real, their fear is genuine.
A fearful toddler needs your help. So, whilst you do not want to establish poor habits that you will have to rectify later. You do need to acknowledge your toddler’s fears and help them process and find ways to deal with these fears.
Tips for Dealing with Toddler Separation Anxiety at Bedtime
Tip 1 – Acknowledge their Feelings
Although well-intentioned, saying things like "You are not afraid" or "There is nothing to be afraid of" will not help. If your child believes that you are not listening to their fears, their separation anxiety at bedtime is likely to escalate.
Let your child know that it is okay to be afraid. Reflect back to your child by saying things like “You are afraid” or “The monsters under the bed bother you.”
Remind your child of another time they felt afraid, but everything turned out to be fine. For example, when they started day-care or went down a slide for the 1st time.
Acknowledging their fear does not mean that you agree with their anxiety but rather that you see things from their perspective. In doing this, your child will be more open to listening to possible solutions within your boundaries.
Tip 2 – Help them to Relax at Night
Help your child to relax at night by teaching them breathing exercises. This will help to decrease stress and anxiety.
Another great technique is to get your child to think about things that make them happy. Tell them to close their eyes and think about something that makes them feel happy or safe.
Alternatively, you could tell them to think about funny things. I used to do this with my son, and it worked well. I would make up ridiculous things for him to think about, like blue-spotted dogs with rainbow tails or red and yellow striped zebras.
Tip 3 – Offer a ‘Lovey’ or Soft Toy for Comfort
If your child does not have a special blanket or toy, now could be an excellent time to introduce one. You could also use an item they are familiar with like an old sleep sack or swaddle.
Whatever you choose, you can tell your child that the item is special, and its job is to help them feel safe and loved. If you choose a soft toy, you could tell your child that the little toy needs their protection.
Tip 4 – Provide Some Light
The dark can make a child anxious even if they have been used to the darkness in the past. My son slept in the dark with the door closed from day one of bringing him home from the hospital but then around 20 months old, he would not go to sleep unless we put on a light. So, I used to leave the light on in the passageway and leave his door slightly ajar.
You could help your child feel less afraid of the dark by providing a nightlight. Choose lights that give a warm, soft light.
You can choose from a wide range of night lights.
Tip 5 – Always Say Goodnight
As tempting as it can be to try and sneak out of your child’s room just as they are drifting off, this can cause their separation anxiety to worsen. Your child may fight sleep even more as you have shown them that if they fall asleep or look away, you’ll disappear.
Always say goodnight to your child while they are still awake. Once you have done this, leave – as difficult as it maybe try not to drag out the process of leaving the room.
Offer your child reassurance, let them know you will be in the other room or downstairs. You can also let your child know that you will check on them throughout the night.
Tip 6 – Have a Good Bedtime Routine
You could get your toddler to help you put one together, agree on what you will do each night as part of your routine, bath, brush teeth, put on PJ's, read a book etc. Getting your toddler involved will help them to feel more in control, and the consistency and predictability will help them feel safe.
Tip 7 – Be Patient
Try to remember that this phase will pass, and bedtime will no longer be a struggle. When you are tired from lack of sleep, it can be challenging not to get irritated with your little one. Try to relax; if your child senses your irritation or annoyance, this is only going to make them feel more anxious.
Tip 8 – Comfort your Child when they Need it
If your child wakes crying in the middle of the night, calling for you, then comfort them. This will help to reassure your child and let them know that you are close.
However, do not make these night-time comforting fun times. This is not the time for reading books or playing games. Keep the interaction as short as possible. Reassure them that you are close by and then leave.
You want to avoid creating bad habits that you must break later. So, resist the temptation to sleep on the floor or sit next to your child.
Tip 9 – Play Music
A great way to take a child’s mind off their anxiety is with some soothing music. Put a playlist together that you can turn on each night. Choose quiet, relaxing songs, nothing that will get them excited. This will help them to relax, and you will find that they eventually drift off to sleep before the playlist has even finished.
Tip 10 – Problem-Solve Together
Help your child to problem-solve how they can feel less anxious and feel as though they are close to you even when you are not there.
A few ideas could be:
While your child is experiencing separation anxiety at bedtime, do not use bedtime as a punishment for poor behaviour. Do not, for example, say things like "If you do not behave, you are going to bed early tonight." Using bed/sleep as a punishment will only increase their anxiety.
Remember that this phase of separation anxiety will not last forever. Some children get over their anxiety quickly whilst for others, it may hang around for a few months. If your child starts to experience any physical symptoms of stress like tummy aches or headaches, then it is always best to check with a doctor.
The only thing worth stealing is a kiss from a sleeping child.
– Joe Houldsworth