It may seem strange when your friendly, outgoing baby suddenly turns into a clingy toddler who seems permanently attached to your legs, but separation anxiety is a normal part of growing up for many kids. Your toddler’s separation anxiety may cause challenges for both of you, however — especially at bedtime.
Separation anxiety is common in toddlers who are just beginning to learn about cause and effect. Your toddler is more aware of his surroundings than he was when he was a baby, which means he can tune into potential hazards, and his developing imagination means he can visualize all kinds of new and scary things. When you disappear from his sight, whether it’s to run to the grocery store or to go to sleep, it’s easy for your toddler to worry that you won’t be coming back.
Separation anxiety can make bedtime a challenge because your toddler is afraid you might not be back in the morning. Depending on your toddler’s personality, she may try endless stall tactics, like asking for a drink of water, another story, different pajamas or an extra blanket, or burst into hysterical tears as soon as you turn out the light. Bedtime can end up being a stressful experience for both of you.
Toddlers don’t always have the ability to tell the difference between fiction and reality. If your child watches scary or exciting DVDs or reads scary or exciting books right before bedtime, it may make his separation anxiety worse.
To help your toddler cope with separation anxiety, create a bedtime routine that starts with snuggling and cuddling and gradually moves you out of his room, recommends Judith Owens, director of the pediatric sleep disorders clinic at Hasbro Children’s Hospital in Providence, in “Parents” magazine. Your child will learn to anticipate the routine and seeing you the next morning, which will gradually ease his anxiety. A familiar stuffed animal and a cheerful night light can also help make his room feel like a friendlier place.
If your child has ongoing issues with bad dreams or night terrors or if you’re concerned because she’s not getting enough sleep, talk with your child’s pediatrician.