When your toddler goes through separation anxiety, it can break your heart. You know you’re not leaving, but there’s no convincing them of that. It’s hard to watch those tears roll down their cheeks when they know you’re leaving.
It can also be frustrating, because it leads to clinging, fussing, and a new found desire to be around you. All. The. Time.
But don’t worry too much, because it’s a good sign. It’s a sign that your child trusts you and needs you. It’s also a normal part of development and signals their capacity to learn object permanence.
While it’s normal for toddlers to feel this way, it’s hard on everyone, and until the storm passes, you may be left wondering how you can make this phase easier to get through. If it starts happening at bedtime, here are some things you can do.
1. Understand separation anxiety
The more you understand about separation anxiety, the more patient you’ll be when it happens. Starting around 6-10 months, your child may cling to you more or start crying when they know you’re about to leave.
It can happen at bedtime, too. It often appears suddenly. One day they’re fine, and the next day they’re a mess. It can be unnerving, but it’s important to understand how it can affect your child.
It often happens if there’s been a change like a new babysitter, but it will likely affect sleep. It can damage your baby’s nap schedule or bedtime routine. Your awesome sleeper will suddenly be waking up again at night, just to see you.
Sound flattering? You won’t think so after a few nights of regression. In fact, it’s one of the primary causes of 8, 9, and 10 month sleep regression. Remember that it’s normal.
2. Analyze how it’s affecting sleep
While it’s normal, there will be times when it’s much worse than others. It may even come and go throughout toddlerhood. Around 18 months, you may find that your toddler starts to hate it when you leave….again. And sometimes it happens again at 2 years.
It will wreak havoc on sleep schedules. Your toddler will be full of drama at naptime and you’ll experience temper tantrums at bedtime. Knowing how it’s affecting your child will help you find tips that will work to fix the problem.
3. Stick with the bedtime routine
You should have already developed a bedtime routine to help your child wind down at night. It may include a bath, books, singing, or rocking. Stick with it, especially now. Your child needs consistency to help them feel more comfortable.
It’s soothing and relaxing, plus it gives them the predictability they need to feel safe, which can help ease some separation anxiety, because they know deep down you’ll return in the morning.
4. Make the sleep environment positive
How your child feels about their room can have a big impact on their ability to comfortably fall asleep without you. If you send them to their room as a punishment during the day or rarely spend time with them there, they may feel apprehensive about the space.
You can ensure your child has positive, affirming feelings about their room by playing with them regularly in the space. Stop using it for punishment so it feels like a safe space.
Keep the bed comfortable, make sure the room is dark (but maybe not too dark for those scared of the dark) and quiet, and play some soothing white noise to help them sleep.
You have a better chance of your child wanting to sleep there when you make it a positive environment.
5. Never sneak away
This applies to separation anxiety during the day and at night. Never try to sneak out of the house or out of the bedroom when you know your child is going through separation anxiety.
It may seem easier to slip out while your child is distracted than dealing with it, but in the long run, it will make their anxiety worse. It confirms their fear that you could leave them without them ever knowing it. It also adds fuel to the fire of uncertainty in a big world they don’t yet understand.
6. Say good night, or goodbye
Make sure your child does know you’re leaving, but don’t make it a big production. Give them a hug, tell them you’ll be back in a little bit, and leave. If they cry and you linger, they’ll learn that crying gets you to stay longer, and they’ll just continue to do it.
They need to learn that when you say you’ll be back, you mean it. Saying good night after your bedtime routine and leaving the room will give them the practice they need to fall asleep without you, knowing you’ll be back in the morning.
The same goes for leaving the house or dropping them off at daycare. Say goodbye with a hug and leave. Letting your child watch you walk out the door may seem mean, but it’s necessary for them to begin understanding you’ve left, but you’ll be back again.
7. Keep calm
Just as you calmly tell them good night and leave the room, keep a calm demeanor, too. Parents often intentionally add to their child’s anxiety by having a worried face or timid body language. Be gentle, but firm, and reassure your little one that there’s nothing to be afraid of.
Keep bedtime light and happy. If you’re relaxed and confident, it’s more likely that your toddler will be as well.
8. Comfort your child without developing bad habits
You can always comfort your child if they wake up screaming, wailing, or sobbing at naptime or bedtime. It’s fine to reassure them and let them know you’re close. It can be reassuring for you to make sure they’re not hurt, too.
But keep the interaction short and boring. Don’t play games, read books, tickle, or sing. Once you comfort your child, it’s important to leave again. Stay calm, just like you did at bedtime, and your child will soon learn that bedtime is normal and nothing to fear.
9. Acknowledge your child’s anxiety
Make sure your child knows you understand what they’re going through rather than brushing it off like it’s nothing, Giving legitimacy to their feelings make them feel even more comfortable. Tell them you know they’re going to miss you, and that it’s a normal feeling to have.
10. Give your child independence in bed
If your child wakes up and plays on their own for a few minutes after a nap or waking up in the morning, let them do that. They will have the opportunity to explore what it feels like to be alone in the crib and be just fine.
They may figure out that they’re comfortable with it and boost their confidence as well as make them feel more secure the next time you leave.
11. Practice leaving during the day
Practice makes perfect, so if you’re struggling with separation anxiety at bedtime, practice leaving during the day to get your child used to it. If your child already goes to daycare, they’ve had plenty of practice, but this is especially valuable for stay at home parents.
If you’re always with your child, you can give them some practice being away from you with a babysitter, a grandparent, or your spouse. Help them get more comfortable being away from you.
You can start practicing this as early as you want to prepare them for the separation anxiety phase.
There are a couple of things to keep in mind when leaving during the day:
- Much like at night, you want to keep the goodbye calm and brief. Give your child a warning ahead of time that you’ll be leaving soon. Don’t act anxious or nervous about it. It will only add to your child’s anxiety. Instead, give them a hug, say goodbye, and make sure they see you leave.
- Build a goodbye routine. Just like a bedtime routine, a goodbye routine will give them some consistency in the event and make them feel more comfortable. It’s something familiar they can hang onto after you leave.
- Have an activity ready. If you coordinate with the sitter to have a fun activity ready for right after you leave, it can help redirect your child’s attention to something less stressful. They are more likely to quickly forget you’re not there and the time until you return will pass much more quickly.
12. Compare bedtime to leaving during the day
It can be difficult for even the strongest parents to watch their child cry when they leave. The best thing you can do for yourself is put things in perspective. Compare bedtime to leaving your child during the day.
If you were to drop your child off with a babysitter and they began to cry, you wouldn’t take the next three days off of work to console them and hope it solved the problem. You also wouldn’t cancel date night if your child started to cry when you left them with a grandparent.
You have to continue with your plans and help your child through it lovingly. You know they will be safe and well cared for wherever they are. Make sure you trust your babysitters to reduce your anxiety and help them through it even easier.
The same applies at night. You can’t drop everything and sleep with them just because they struggle through a few weeks. You need to be consistent with the things you’ve already taught your child because you know they are capable of sleeping all night alone.
13. Make sure everyone is on the same page
Talk with your spouse about how to handle separation anxiety at bedtime and come up with a plan together. Make sure you stick to it. If even one parent wavers, your child may stay in this phase longer and struggle to get through it.
If your child spends the night with a grandparent or somewhere else without you, make sure every caregiver knows what to do and how to handle the situation. Your best bet is to avoid sleepovers during this phase, because being without you is already hard on your child.
However, if you already had plans, don’t cancel them. Do everything you can to create consistency in the routine for your child.
14. Avoid strange beds
You can’t expect your child to fall asleep very well in a strange place, so if there are any plans for your child to be away from their own bed, make sure they’re familiar with where they’re going.
For children who spend a lot of time at a grandparent’s house, you may be in the clear. However, it’s best to prepare your child for the event if it’s a must by bringing bedtime things they’re familiar with, like a pillow, blanket, or lovey.
15. Avoid screen time
It’s always a good practice to avoid screen time before bed because it can be a stimulant. However, as your child goes through separation anxiety, screen time too close to bed can make it worse.
Their mind is already stimulated and overactive, so it can enhance feelings of discomfort, even if you follow the calming bedtime routine you always do.
16. Don’t let your child sleep with you
This probably goes without saying, but sticking with the routine and putting them in their own bed is the absolute best thing you can do right now. While it’s fine to validate their feelings, it’s not fine to switch up the routine or coddle them during this time.
It might help alleviate the fear in the short term, but it will only add to the anxiety in the long run. Your child will become reliant on sleeping with you and may struggle to go back to their own bed, even after the separation anxiety passes.
17. Mentally prepare for bedtime in advance
At this age, your child is an expert at stalling and negotiation. Anything to get you to stay a little longer or push bedtime back even later. Decide in advance how the bedtime routine is going to work and where you’re drawing the line.
If your child has a tendency to ask for one more book, and then one more book, and then one more book, set the expectation up front that you will only read two books before bed every night.
The same goes for how many kisses they need, how many stuffed animals have to be in the bed, and how loud the white noise machine has to be. Come up with a plan, communicate it to your child, and then stick to it.
18. Give your child a security object
By now, your child has likely already developed an attachment to a specific bedtime object. Definitely let them keep it. If they don’t have one already, it’s never too late to introduce one. You can also reintroduce something they loved in infancy like a swaddling blanket or a stuffed animal.
Give the object special significance and talk about it as if it’s very unique. It can make your child feel safe and loved as well as spark some imagination in a positive and happy way.
19. Give them night lights or soothing toys
There are a lot of great soothing toys to help ease separation anxiety at bedtime. If your child is scared of the dark, buy a fun night light. There are plenty of designs and you can even find night lights with their favorite characters or projectors that display the stars on the ceiling.
20. Play white noise or music
If your child is a light sleeper, get a white noise machine or a music box that plays lullabies. It can drown out any outside noise and music even helps stimulate development while your child sleeps.
If you don’t want to invest in anything new, you can simply create an iTunes playlist and leave it in their room every night. Find quiet, soothing music and instrumental songs to help them go to sleep.
Separation anxiety is tough on everyone, especially if you’ve struggled with it before and you thought it was over. You might think older children would understand object permanence better, but there are many developmental stages at which your child can regress.
Separation anxiety is one of the most common sleep disruptors, so developing a plan to handle it and making sure your spouse is on the same page can create some consistency in your child’s routine and help them feel more comfortable.
It may not make the phase go faster, but it will ensure that it won’t last longer. You’ll be supporting your child through it while maintaining healthy sleep habits, too!