As your little one grows & becomes more aware of their surroundings, they also become more aware that you leave! Know as separation anxiety, this can provoke insecurity at bedtime which can make it hard for your little one to fall asleep, cause night wakings, & fragmented sleep. Read on for some tips on how to ease your little one's anxiety for easy bedtimes!
If you start to notice that your little one is a little more clingy, cries when you put them down, or when you leave the room, these are generally the signs of separation anxiety.
Separation anxiety can make it hard for your little one to nap, say goodnight, & stay asleep at night
Consider what you did that day. Did you go to a party? Were there lots of new faces there? Did your little one start daycare or spend time with grandma without you? Or maybe you are leaving them alone to play like you have always done & they've just now realized you aren't actually there with them. Your little one is beginning to understand that they can't always see you & this could cause them to become nervous about being separated from you - their lifeline! This is completely normal & a phase most children go through.
At what ages should I expect this to happen?
Separation anxiety starts to peak at around 8-10 months when babies develop object permanence. It can peak again at around 18 months because they start to become more independent. It can happen anytime in between these two ages & even in older children who are taking part in new experiences, like daycare or starting school!
We sleep trained & now our little one gets so upset at bedtime!
Bedtime can be a hard moment for a lot of children - it is a time to say goodbye & they know they won't see you for a while so it is hard for them to let go. For a child going through separation anxiety, this fear feels extremely real & so scary! "I won't see mommy or daddy again!", "What if they don't come back?", "If I can't see mommy or daddy, then they are gone & I am alone." could be just some thoughts going through their little heads. Keeping bedtime as a nice moment filled with love, cuddles, & sweet words will allow your little one to drift off in a sort of love bubble. They will feel safe & secure making them able to fall asleep easier & stay asleep. If they are in distress at bedtime they are more likely to have a hard time falling asleep & night wakes will happen. They lack that feeling of security we need to relax & sleep.
Sleep training that involves leaving the child alone while crying (Cry it out / extinction) or leaving for extended amounts of time without going back to check on them can cause your little one to associate bedtime as a stressful moment & not something to look forward to. Many parents find that they have to repeat the process multiple times as the child ages or they come to me to find a new strategy. This is so distressing to you as a parent as well as for your little one. Many times the child becomes dangerously overheated or even vomits because of the crying.
This is a tough discussion & many parents feel pressured by peers or family members to just do it as a quick fix to sleep through the night in those desperate moments when the lack of sleep has driven the family into a crisis. There are so many more effective, gentle methods to teach your child the skills they need & empower them to sleep through the night without having to leave them alone to cry.
My toddler doesn't want me to leave at bedtime, is this separation anxiety?
What is new in your toddler's life? Did they start school or daycare? Did you start work? Did a new baby arrive? Maybe in part it is separation anxiety, but sometimes it comes from new fears, the need for more attention to fill their love bucket, or they need an adjustment to their sleep schedule or bedtime.
Tips on handling separation anxiety
During the day, try role-playing with your little one's stuffed animals or dolls. Another great game is to gradually move away from your child as they are playing with you. Meaning first you are on the floor with them, then you move a few steps away always within sight to then come back & give them a kiss, & slowly you move out of sight while coming back every so often to give a kiss. Also, try spending at least 10 minutes of quality one-on-one time without distractions & doing what they want to do!
At bedtime, let them know you'll see them in the morning, talk about what you'll be doing the next day or a yummy breakfast in the morning. Getting them excited about something that happens after their big sleep can help the be relaxed about bedtime.
For a few nights, if you notice that they are really struggling, stay in the room with them & offer lots of extra cuddles before bed.
I have lots of wonderful strategies to work with your little one's anxiety & would love to help you ease into stress-free bedtime & nights. Just send me a message or comment below.