- Jessica Berk
Toddler Separation Anxiety and Sleep
Does your child’s desire to have you near them cause lots of stalling and big emotions at bedtime?
Our kids love to be with us! And that’s a huge compliment to us and shows us that we have formed a strong, secure bond with our kids. But sometimes our kids desire to have us near them can cause lots of stalling and big emotions at bedtime. Parents commonly refer to this as separation anxiety.
Today I want to reframe this idea of toddler separation anxiety at bedtime and teach you a simple project you can do with your child to make bedtime run more smoothly.
>>Watch this blog on my Awesome Little Sleepers YouTube channel! 👇
First, I want you to understand that it’s 100% normal for child to have some separation anxiety - some clinginess and the feeling that they don’t want you to leave. It shows that your child has a healthy attachment to you and feels safe with you.
But it’s also our job to help our kids understand that they are safe and can be happy when they are not with us - when they go to school, when they stay with a babysitter or when it’s bedtime. Our goal is to foster and develop a sense of independence in our kids as they get older.
Separation Anxiety and Sleep in Toddlers
If you have a child who struggles being left alone at bedtime, there are 3 things I want you to consider.
First, are they ever comfortable being away from you?
If yes, that should make you feel confident because if they are okay being away from you during the day, you know that they can get comfortable being without you at bedtime, too.
If not - if they are never comfortable being away from you - start encouraging independent play during the day even if it’s for a short period of time like 5 or 10 minutes. You can use a timer and leave your child happily playing in the living room while you go start dinner or take a solo trip to the bathroom. When you return say something like “You were just playing all by yourself while Mommy was in the bathroom and it looks like you were having a great time!” This helps them understand that they are actually fine and happy without you sometimes. It will boost their confidence and ultimately help them feel more secure on their own.
Second, is there a chance that you’re passing on your own anxiety?
This admittedly can be a tough one to assess. Whether you have some anxieties about things that happened in your own childhood or perhaps you have dealt with a challenging situation with your own child in the past, assessing this requires some real self-reflection.
When my daughter was new to a big girls bed she rolled off her bed once and hit her head pretty good on her bedside table. I felt so guilty! I should have had a bed rail on there. The table shouldn’t have been so close. I felt like it was my fault even though it was a total accident. I could have let her sleep in my bed so I could try and protect her more. Or I could have laid in her bed with her. It would probably have relieved my anxiety but I knew it would send the message “your bed isn’t safe”. And that was definitely not the message I wanted to send. So, I added a bed rail and we all moved on sleeping in our own beds.
When we let our anxieties cloud the situation we can send mixed signals to our kids. If you feel anxious and don’t really think your child can be sleeping in their own bed, they will pick up on that and it won’t feel safe to them either.
Remember, our goal is to raise healthy, well-adjusted kids. Kids asserting their independence should start around 2-3 years old and it should be something that we encourage - whether that’s getting dressed by themselves, cleaning up their toys or falling asleep by themselves.
Third, is it separation anxiety or just a change they’re not used to?
If your child is used to having you lay with them while they fall asleep and you start the process of trying to remove yourself from their room so they can become an independent sleeper, you’re probably going to get some push back from them. It’s not necessarily a sudden onset of separation anxiety - especially if they are comfortable spending time away from you during the day - it’s just a natural reaction to a change they’re not used to.
I think calling your child’s strong emotions at bedtime separation anxiety can make it sound a bit scarier than it is. In most cases, kids are just used to what they’re used to - you laying with them, you sitting in the room, sleeping in your bed…. And they don’t want it to change because they’re used to it - it’s become a sleep habit.
Sleep Training Tips
To help your child get used to being separated from you, doctors recommend keeping goodbyes brief and developing a ritual for leaving.
Keeping goodbyes brief is key. If you keep going back and saying goodbye again and again and prolonging the separation it gives the child the message that maybe there is something to be worried about - I mean, you appear worried because you keep saying you’re going to leave but then you keep coming back! Keeping goodbyes brief conveys your confidence and helps the child feel more comfortable.
Rituals for leaving are great and exactly what I teach for bedtime inside my toddler sleep course, Sleep Tight Without a Fight.
I’ll share one of my favorite ideas to help your child feel more comfortable being separated from you. I love the book The Invisible String by Patrice Karst. It’s about how we’re all connected by an invisible string of love even when we are apart. When we’re in different rooms at home, at work and school or even connected to family members in different states. This is a great bedtime book.
You can also do this cute art project. Cut out 2 hearts and you and your child each decorate one. Then tape it on the wall next to your beds and your child can touch it to remind themselves that you’re always together even when you’re sleeping in different rooms.
I hope this has helped shed some light onto what might be causing some of the separation anxiety and what you can do to relieve it. Remember, the more confident you are, your kids will pick up on it.
If you’re struggling to get your child to fall asleep without needing you to stay in the room, it's time for you to take my free Toddler Sleep Masterclass where I teach you the proven method to get your child comfortable falling asleep alone - so they can sleep through the night. You can fix your family’s sleep problems for good!
And even if you are still not 100% sure what is disrupting your child’s sleep, this free class can only help you get more clarity. >>Click Here<<