You can stop Nighttime Separation Anxiety in kids with these 8 tips that will help your child to fall asleep. Bedtime is one of my favorite times of the day… time to cuddle with our kids, hear about their day, hear all of their dreams and hopes, but at the same time- it is one of the most stressful times of the day. If your child has separation anxiety at bedtime, this can make every night a seemingly unending struggle.
Even a well-adjusted child experiences anxiety when separated from their parents, and most children also experience nighttime fears.
Did you know they say there is a true reason for this? It goes back to our hunter-gatherer ancestors. They had left their children alone at night, they would have been vulnerable to predators. To be left alone at night meant abandonment – and quite possibly harm. Fear evolved to keep kids close and safe, and this instinctual fear is still with our children today.
A fearful child needs your help. Children’s brains aren’t mature enough to cope with distressing emotions – they simply lack the cognitive skills to do so. If your little one is having separation anxiety issues and can’t get to sleep, try these tips.
Image ©Philippe Put
1. Validate Their Feelings
Let your child know it’s okay to feel nervous. Remind them of another time they were scared, but everything turned out fine. This helps them to see that their feelings are normal – and that they’ll be able to handle them.
2. Teach them HOW to Relax at night
Relaxation techniques aren’t just for adults; they work wonders for children. Teach your child how to do belly breathing exercises to help decrease stress and anxiety.
Another great relaxation technique (one that worked well for me) is to counteract frightening thoughts with images of happiness and safety. If your child is scared at night, have them close their eyes and imagine a soothing scene and tell themselves a story about it.
They can pick out shapes in the clouds in a flowering meadow, find treasures while deep sea exploring, or encounter friendly forest animals while hiking a mountain trail – wherever their imagination takes them. Before they know it, they’ll be completely relaxed and on their way to sleep.
Sometimes I’ll tell my kids “Whatever you do, just don’t think about how the puppy took a bath and made a huge mess and we all laughed about it!” (Guess what they will be thinking about until they drift off to sleep… 🙂 )
3. Offer a “Lovey” or “Blankey”
The comfort of a soft toy animal or doll is a powerful thing. Offer your child a plush toy (snuggie, blankey, lovey, whatever word you choose) and present it as a protector – or alternatively as a creature needing your child’s protection. I LOVE this one – it is so sweet.
4. Provide Some Light
The dark can be terrifying to an anxious child. Provide a nightlight that gives off a soft, warm light. Avoid lights with a blue or green cast as they inhibit the production of melatonin in the brain, and can prevent your child from feeling drowsy at bedtime. My Glo-Worm was the perfect snuggle toy because it doubled as a night-light. This seahorse is perfect, too (same idea). All of our kids used it.
Image ©Ben Francis
5. Always Say Goodnight
It may be really tempting to sneak out while your child is drifting off, but it can make things much worse in the long run. It demonstrates to your child that if they start to fall asleep or look away for a moment, you’ll vanish.
Always say goodbye, and once you’ve done so, try not to drag out your departure. Reassure your child you are only in another room, and will not be leaving the house. Tell your child when they will see you again to reinforce the fact that you will always come back. Be reliable and always come back when you say you will. Remind them you will come in to check on them throughout the night, too. It always helped me to know that my mom would not go to sleep until I was sleeping.
6. A safe place to sleep
Each of our children has made their way into our room in the middle of the night, at some point in the past few years. They want to be comforted from a bad dream or just want an extra hug – and I’m OK with that because it’s only on occasion and I also welcome extra hugs. However, I also love that they each have a bed to call their own – a safe place to sleep.
If your child wakes up in the night and cannot soothe themselves, it’s a good idea to offer them a place to go to feel safe. A nap mat or small mattress on the floor next to your bed will provide them with the closeness they need, without the necessity to co-sleep.
We had to do this for about a month and eventually we were able to transition our child back to their own room. You can transition out of this, but if it keeps your child from waking up your family and from feeling scared at night, this might be the thing that they need. Remember… this, too, is just a phase.
7. Establish a Routine
Establishing a bedtime routine can be especially helpful when your child is going through a tough time. It helps by showing them that there is order in their world. Consider making a chart to list the exact times of nighttime tasks that you can walk through together: Brush Teeth, PJ’s, etc…
8. Be Patient
It’s hard when your child’s anxiety is depriving you of sleep, and it’s natural to feel resentment. However, it’s incredibly important not to direct that anger or irritation at your child. If your child feels rejected, this will only deepen the separation anxiety and make things worse. Try some of those belly breathing exercises, cuddle time, talking through it and reassuring him that it will be OK.
In time, this separation anxiety will pass, and bedtime struggles will become a memory. However, if the anxiety persists and starts to interfere with daily activities such as school and playtime, there might be something larger at work. Consult your pediatrician if you notice physical symptoms that manifest in anticipation of separation, including stomachaches, headaches, and dizziness.
If you need a little help with sleep, I highly recommend this book: For the Love of Sleep