You feel like you have finally arrived: Your baby is able to fall asleep on their own, and they sleep peacefully through the night. Then one evening, seemingly out of the blue, your baby starts to scream the moment you make a move toward the bedroom door, or they wake up throughout the night and refuse to go back to sleep without you nearby. What’s going on here?
The answer could be separation anxiety. While this term often conjures up the mental picture of a child crying when their parent leaves for work, your little one could also fear being left alone in their bedroom. Separation anxiety can be hard enough to deal with during the day, but the resulting lack of sleep can make nighttime anxiety even more challenging.
Is there anything you can do about this situation? Once you gain a better understanding of separation anxiety itself, there are several strategies you can try to help ease your child’s fears and have a more peaceful night.
How Nocturnal Separation Anxiety Can Vary by Age
Despite being in safe and familiar surroundings, infants, toddlers and even preschoolers can all be prone to feeling fearful, distressed or angry at your departure. However, the reason your child is experiencing these emotions can differ based on their age and level of development.
Somewhere around six to eight months of age, the typical baby starts to grasp the fact that they are a separate person to their parents. They also realize that you are able to leave them, but they usually aren’t mature enough to understand that you will be back.
A child’s emotions and willfulness often come to the forefront during the toddler years. While they may be starting to realize that you will return after you leave, a toddler’s separation anxiety may be due more to the fact that they simply want you to stay.
Positive Aspects of Separation Anxiety
Even though nocturnal separation anxiety can be a tiring and difficult stage to pass through, take comfort in the fact that there are a couple of ways this phase shows your child is making some healthy emotional and intellectual advances.
- Signals a strong bond with a parent. Your child’s desire to be close to you at all hours shows that they recognize you as their caregiver and comforter. They are turning to what they see as a safe place for the soothing and affection they need.
- Sign of normal cognitive development. Separation anxiety can be a signal that your child is learning basic life and social concepts.
As mentioned above, your infant is starting to realize that they are a separate individual. Your toddler is beginning to grasp the cause-and-effect concept, so they cry out for a response because they are confident they will get one.
Possible Reasons Your Child Struggles With Separation Anxiety at Night
Several reasons could be behind your child’s sudden need for your presence at all hours of the night.
Your child has either reached a developmental milestone recently, or they will shortly. Your baby’s brain is constantly learning and developing, but there are certain times when that growth speeds up and your child seems to master a new skill overnight.
These periods of rapid development often seem to disrupt a child’s normal activities while their brain focuses on learning or adjusting to the new skill.
Here are a few examples of these developmental milestones:
- Expanding vocabulary
A change to your normal daily routine. Young children are creatures of habit. Whenever there is a loss of routine, your child’s sense of security and peaceful sleep could suffer.
Some examples of significant changes to your child’s normal life include the following:
- A new childcare provider
- Becoming an older sibling
Even less dramatic events like a mild illness could be a contributing factor.
An unknown reason. You may never be able to pinpoint a reason for this particular phase, or your child could be dealing with some upsetting feelings that they aren’t able to communicate with you.
Here are a couple of possibilities:
- Pain from teething
- A frightening experience
Tips for Dealing With Nocturnal Separation Anxiety
This doesn’t have to be a time you simply survive through. Instead, try to think of your child’s fears or other strong emotions as an opportunity for you to help them grow in their independence.
You also get the chance to show your child unconditional love and reinforce the fact that you will always be there.
Teach through play
Playtime is often the best learning time for children. When you play with your child, they have your undivided attention, and they are usually more relaxed and ready to absorb new knowledge.
Simple games can be a fun way to get your child more comfortable with the concept of leaving and coming back.
- Peek a boo. Ideal for infants and young toddlers, this game is a gentle way to introduce the concept that Mommy and Daddy always come back. Cover your face with your hands, a book or a blanket, and then either let your child reach up and remove the covering or do it yourself.
- Hide and seek. Once your child is an independent walker, this game can provide a tangible lesson that even though you may disappear for a while, you will be back.
Some children may get a bit frightened when they first start playing hide and seek, so you may need to “find” yourself for a while until they catch on for themselves.
Disappearing briefly and then coming back in a playful way can help your child learn that just because they can’t see you doesn’t mean you are gone permanently. Repetition is also an effective learning tool, so be sure to play games like these often.
Treat leaving and coming back as a normal part of life.
Everyday activities can be the perfect opportunity to show your child that they don’t have to fear your departure.
Leave your child in a safe place like their crib or a baby-proofed area, and use a casual tone to say something like, “I need to go check on supper. I’ll be right back.” Make your absence brief, but allow your child to have a little time alone. Finally, come back into the room and resume your previous activity without any fanfare.
Always do what you say you will.
Your child needs to know that they can trust you, so make it a point to keep your word whenever possible. If you tell your child that you will read them a story after lunch or give them a certain food at snack time, be sure to do it.
When your child knows that you keep your promises during the day, they are more likely to believe you when you tell them you are nearby all night and will be back in the morning.
This point is especially true starting in the toddler stage. However, do your best to be mindful of what you say even when your child is an infant; they may be absorbing far more than you think.
Spend lots of time cuddling during the day.
Children need physical touch to develop healthy brain connections. Ensuring that you meet your child’s snuggle needs during the day may help them rest easier at night.
Establish a calming bedtime routine.
Since young children don’t have a concept of time, they usually rely on a familiar order of events to transition from one part of their day to the next.
The predictable pattern of a regular bedtime routine lets your child know what to expect, and this knowledge could help them feel calmer, more confident and less anxious.
Make your child’s bedroom a comforting, safe space.
Try some of these ideas to help promote a calming bedtime environment.
- Night light. If you suspect your child could be afraid of the dark, a night light could help them feel more secure and peaceful.
Many small lamps use LED lights, but the strong blue wavelengths these bulbs produce mimic daylight and could disrupt your child’s sleep. Look for a product specifically designed to be a night light since they often have a cover that filters out some of the blue light.
- Bedtime buddy. A safe toy or blanket can provide some company and help your child feel less alone.
Experts differ in their opinions about when you should put extra objects in your child’s bed, but most agree that is should be safe to give your child a small stuffed animal or blanket around their first birthday.
- Lavender. The scent of lavender can promote feelings of relaxation and calmness. You can use a lavender-scented lotion before bedtime, a room spray or an essential oil diffuser. Be sure to check out our sleep tips article for more detailed instructions on how to use lavender in your child’s bedroom.
Tell your child that you will be leaving, and never slip away.
It can be incredibly tempting to try to quietly sneak out of your child’s room when they are distracted by a toy or not looking.
Even though this seems like the easy way out, it almost always backfires. Sneaking away can erode trust, and it usually just leaves you with a startled, screaming child who is even harder to calm down.
Calmly explaining what will happen typically yields better results. Tell your child that you will stay in the room for a few minutes, then it will be time for you to leave. Emphasize that you will be close by and will check on them.
Especially if your child is an infant, they probably won’t understand everything you say. Although they may not follow all of your words, your tone can make a world of difference. If you treat leaving as something that is normal and nothing to fear, your child is likely to eventually respond in a calmer manner themselves.
Plan to Use Your Patience
This phase could be as short as a couple of nights, or it could last for quite a bit longer. No matter what strategies you choose to try, helping your child learn to feel safe and calm independently is likely to take some time.
If your child’s nighttime separation anxiety leaves you struggling with your own daytime sleepiness, check out these tips for tired parents.
Don’t feel bad if you have to let some other tasks slide for a while. You can’t do it all, and right now your child needs you to give them some extra time and attention. Ask your partner, family members or friends for help if you have trouble getting to tasks that can’t wait.
Dealing with separation anxiety at night can be a challenge for parent and child alike.
There is good news, though: This phase will not last forever, and it is often a sign of your child’s healthy development. You can also choose to view this time as an opportunity to teach your child independent soothing skills as well as reassure them of your love and care.
Has your child struggled with separation anxiety at night? What did you do about it? Share your thoughts and experiences in the comments!