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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.

Are they coming out of bed?  Not wanting to go to sleep.  These are all typical signs of nighttime separation anxiety.

stop separation anxiety in kids at bedtime - this worked for us!

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.

kids nighttime separation anxiety

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… 🙂  ) 

You can ask them these Bedtime Questions for Kids  – they are the perfect way to take their minds off of their worries & put them onto something fun & positive.

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.

kids nighttime separation anxietyImage ©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.

teaching your kids to stay in bed
bed at 7

2, 3 or 4 year old waking at night

If you need a little help with sleep, I highly recommend this book: For the Love of Sleep

Hi there!

I’m Becky, a former elementary school teacher turned certified child development therapist and blogger. I work at home with my husband and together we are raising (and partially homeschooling) our four children in the Carolinas. I love diet coke, ice cream, and spending time with my family.

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  1. These are great tips! It sounds like it might work for toddlers/slightly older babies? My infant has recently started screaming in his crib and only wanting to be held, and you can’t reason with him heh.

    1. Oh no- that’s such a hard time. I’m sorry! (It passes though- I promise!)

  2. Any tips for older kids that develop bedtime anxiety. My 11 yr old step son developed a bedtime anxiety 4 weeks ago. He has slept in the same room in the same house by himself for the last 3 yrs without issue. All of the sudden he starts crying and yelling when we make him go to bed. His mom put a tv in his room at their house but he wont sleep with it on, he will stay up 2 am either watching tv or crying. We have tried reading, music, lights, breathing exercises, talking about it but he still wont go to sleep and demands a tv.

  3. My 2yr old has just all of a sudden started with separation anxiety. She has always been a fab sleeper and enjoyed going to bed until a week ago. The second we say our goodbyes she panics and screams. I say I will be back in a minute and it makes things worse. She is up and out of the room before we know it! Any advice? Do we pick her up and place her back down… we tried this and 2 hours later the only way to get her to sleep was sitting beside her until she slept. Please help!!!! X

    1. Our 2 ½ year old son started this same behavior 2 nights ago. It came out of the blue. How did you work through this with your daughter and how long did it taker for her to start falling asleep by herself.

      1. Same. This just started happening to us too. Everything is on routine, songs are sung, books read, bath etc. and then boom, right when I lay him down… the hysterical screaming and climbing out of the crib. I just purchased Little Grounders to help him stay in bed but now I really need to get to the mental issue. Day 9 and I am so frustrated and can’t keep holding his hand and sleeping on the floor!

  4. Just wondering about advice for an almost three year old wakening in the middle of the night. Was a great sleeper up until 5 months ago. Never had a problem would wave us off and say night night and sleep right through, But in March that all changed. Now we have to stay with him until he goes off to sleep and wakes at least once during the night crying. Won’t sooth himself back to sleep we have to stay with him. The other night we were up 5 times with him. Back in March I was 24 weeks pregnant and lost our little boy. Don’t know weather all this is stemming from that. They say children sense if something is wrong. And I suppose we are to blame as well we were not as rigid with bedtime and routine. We are paying for it now!! It’s finny if he ever stays with either of his granny’s he sleeps through the night for them. Most days he refuses his nap with the childminder, too much going on he’s afraid he would miss out on play time. She tries so hard to get him to have his nap. So when I collect him after work he’s like a demon. I’ve Tried staying with him to settle him and then gradually leaving the room and that worked for a while but now he’s started Wakening though the night and it’s near impossible to leave him without him roaring the house down. Any suggestions would be great.

    1. My son is almost 2 years old and he has had a hard time going to sleep ever since we took the pacifier away about 5 months ago. He latches on to me when I try to put him in his crib and screams until you pick him back up. It takes about 45 minutes to get him to fall asleep. I have just recently discovered that if I put him in his crib and let him cry, I can talk into his baby monitor and it soothes him. The last few night I have tried this and it worked like a charm. I just say a few things like, “it’s okay buddy, just lie down and close your eyes, I love you…” and he just stops crying. Fingers crossed it continues working!

  5. Do you have any advice for a 4 year old that won’t sleep alone?? He was the best sleeper until 3 1/2 and now he has major separation anxiety and will scream, cry and hold onto us if we try to leave.

    1. My nephew did this when he was four. My brother let him sleep with his bedroom lights on. It completely stopped. He wasn’t scared when the lights were on & slept all night again.

  6. Just wanted to thank you so much for these tips!! I started using your suggestion in #2 teaching them how to relax & have them create a relaxing story with my two year old who kept saying everything was scary. It was taking me 1.5-2 hours to put him down at night not including bath and 45 minutes for nap! I’ve done this consistently for the last 5 sleep sessions (bedtime and nap) and it has gotten so much easier!!! He drifts of to sleep peacefully and doesn’t say he scared of this and that anymore at bedtime. I think visualization has helped him tremendously. Thank you so much!

    1. YAY! That is such great progress! I’m so happy things have started to get easier around bed time for you guys 🙂

  7. Thank you so much for this gentle fix for helping a child with separation anxiety. This is the first night I have felt confident leaving my child’s room knowing that she trusts me to come back when she needs me. I also feel our bond is so much stronger tonight at bed time than it has been for months. Cheers!