How To Deal with Separation Anxiety in Toddlers at Night
- Separation anxiety is a normal part of your toddler’s mental development and is actually a great sign that they are growing as they should.
- Disruptions in your child’s sleep schedule can be exhausting and stressful, but it is important to remain calm to soothe your child and make their bedtime routine a pleasant experience.
- Keep a consistent, predictable schedule to minimize your child’s anxiety. When your child cries in the middle of the night, offer comfort but keep it minimal.
- Offering blankies, stuffed animals, a night light, or demonstrating breathing and visualization techniques are excellent ways to model coping skills for your toddler.
- Don’t give up. Most toddler separation anxiety only lasts for a period of 2-3 weeks.
Nighttime separation anxiety in toddlers is not only common, it’s actually a good thing! It is an indicator of an important developmental milestone. Although waking up multiple times in the middle of the night to console a crying baby is exhausting and often frustrating, rest assured that it is completely normal.
When babies are around 8 months old, they develop object permanence, which is the cognitive understanding that when something is out of their sight, it still exists. Because of this monumental development, your child becomes able to identify their special people–mommy, daddy, nana, papa, and other caregivers.
Suddenly, these caregivers become permanent objects in the child’s world and they are able to notice when those caregivers leave. This is when separation anxiety occurs in children.
Separation anxiety also stems from a deeply ingrained evolutionary instinct that our ancestors developed to protect themselves. In the hunter-gatherer days of ancient civilizations, if a child woke up and their caregivers were not around that meant abandonment or imminent danger.
Luckily, most of us don’t have to fear a mountain lion coming for our young, but we do need to teach proper coping skills, and provide a regular comforting bedtime routine to deal with these normal evolutionary responses.
Children experience anxiety at many stages of their childhood development and this is an opportunity for you to begin modeling different coping mechanisms for them to manage big feelings and worry.
What is Nighttime Separation Anxiety?
Separation anxiety in your toddler may look like:
- Refusing to sleep alone, or only sleeping when they know you are nearby
- Waking frequently at night and crying for you
- Crying and tantrums when you leave the room or go to work
- Clinging to you, especially in new situations or around others
- Fear of strangers
- Strong preference to you or a particular caregiver over others
- Longer, more frequent naps at inopportune times due to lack of proper sleep
What Causes Your Toddler’s Separation Anxiety?
There can be many contributing factors to your child’s separation anxiety, along with the fact that it is a normal part of the sleep regressions that happen at many stages of childhood. In this case it is most often around 8-12 months, 18 months, and 2 years old. Most children outgrow their nighttime separation anxiety by 3 years old.
There are many contributing factors that can increase your toddler’s separation anxiety, including:
- Starting at a daycare or preschool
- A new caregiver
- Arrival of a sibling
- Loss of a parent or caregiver
- Moving to a new home
- Feeling unwell from things like teething, a cold, or an ear infection
- Caregivers who are stressed, tired, frustrated, and emotional. Children will pick up emotional cues and emulate them.
How Does Separation Anxiety Affect Your Toddler’s Sleep?
While sleep regressions and separation anxiety can be a minor inconvenience or cause a few sleepless nights, they can grow into a much bigger problem if not handled properly. It’s imperative to establish a regular bedtime routine, beginning a few hours before they go to sleep, and avoiding giving in to certain behaviors like sneaking out of their bedroom or staying with them all night.
When they wake up in the middle of the night, keeping your comforting efforts to a minimum helps to avoid an overtired baby who may struggle to stay awake during the daytime, further disrupting their sleep schedule.
How to Handle Separation Anxiety in Toddlers at Night
There are many ways to handle your child’s separation anxiety in a way that helps build their coping skills, emotional management, and sense of independence.
- Maintain a regular, positive, bedtime routine. Avoid making your son or daughter’s room a punishment spot. Also, make sure that you and other caregivers play with them in their bedrooms regularly so that it is also a safe and fun place. For a toddler suffering with separation anxiety, the mere mention of bedtime or entering their room could trigger a meltdown.