On the long list of parenting challenges, separation anxiety is pretty close to the top. Although separation anxiety can feel impossible when you’re in the thick of it, there are many ways to help get through it. (Don’t worry- it won’t last forever.) Today, we’re covering how to handle separation anxiety in toddlers and promote healthy sleep habits!
Handling Separation Anxiety in Toddlers and Promoting Better Sleep
As a parent, having a toddler who struggles with separation anxiety can feel unsolvable- but it’s more common than you may think. Separation anxiety is extremely common in young children between the ages of 18 months and 3 years old. There are many tips, tricks, and tools for handling separation anxiety in toddlers. Let’s dive into separation anxiety, why it happens, and how to come out the other side with better toddler sleep!
*Note that there is a difference between children who experience common separation anxiety and children with Separation Anxiety Disorder (SAD). If you feel that your little one may be struggling with SAD, consult with a qualified doctor or psychologist to figure out the next best steps.
What Causes Separation Anxiety in Toddlers?
Every child is different, and there are many common triggers for separation anxiety. Similarly to sleep regressions, oftentimes separation anxiety occurs during developmental stages or big life changes (a new sibling, new school, big move, potty training, transitioning from a crib to a bed).
Oftentimes, separation anxiety is more prevalent when your toddler feels out of control in a certain situation- whether that’s a preschool dropoff or you putting them to bed. Additionally, your toddler being sick, teething, hungry, or overtired can heighten separation anxiety.
Separation anxiety is extremely challenging for parents because oftentimes it’s when toddlers push boundaries the most. They’re still learning about their environment and certain responses to their behaviors, so naturally, they will likely test whatever boundaries they can (we’ve all been there). Although navigating separation anxiety requires extra patience, it’s nothing to be too concerned about and is a normal part of childhood that won’t last forever.
What Are Some Signs of Separation Anxiety?
You’ll likely be able to pinpoint separation anxiety easily if your toddler is extra clingy or irritable before times of separation. Here are some of the signs to look out for:
- Your little one is extra emotional and begins to cry or become upset when you leave their side
- You notice your child is more wary than usual around people who aren’t their parents or caregivers
- Your toddler displays bedtime resistance and doesn’t want to go to sleep
When Does Separation Anxiety in Toddlers Peak?
Every child is different- no child is “too old” for separation anxiety- it’s very common in younger toddlers like 18-month-olds, as well as older toddlers around 3 and 4 years old. When (and if) your little one’s separation anxiety peaks depends on their unique situation and environmental factors like big life changes or developmental milestones.
How Does Separation Anxiety Impact Sleep?
Separation anxiety can take a major toll on your little one’s sleep routine. You may see this come to fruition through bedtime resistance, increased fussiness, temper tantrums, or crying around bedtime, overnight waking, nightmares, or expressing new fears like the dark.
How to Navigate Separation Anxiety in Toddlers
Although separation anxiety is a common issue in parenthood, there are many ways to get through it. Here are some tips to handle separation anxiety and get past the phase more quickly:
If your toddler knows what to expect, they are much less likely to feel uncomfortable. Although there may still be some bedtime battles, if they’re aware of when separation is bound to happen, they will be much less likely to feel abandoned or panicked. Just like with sleep training, consistency is key.
Help them wind down
Having a bedtime regimen with relaxing activities can help your little one feel safe and secure in their nightly routine. Have bathtime, use a calming lotion and cozy PJs, and read them a bedtime story. This can help them ease into the night and know what to expect. There are many bedtime activities for preschoolers to help children feel sleepy and make bedtime something to look forward to.
Although separation anxiety can be frustrating, it’s important to remember to stay calm. Your little one is experiencing anxious emotions of distress and uncertainty. Gentle and patient reassurance will help your toddler develop a more secure attachment style to you and not feel shame about their anxiety.
Read them a story
Bedtime stories are an excellent addition to your nighttime routine. There are even books that cover common bedtime fears:
- Little Mouse’s Big Book of Fears
- Mikey and the Dragons
- Orion and the Dark
- When I Feel Scared
- Scaredy Squirrel at Night
Reading a story to your little one can help give them coping skills to use during unfamiliar, stressful, or fearful moments.
Prepare for separation
Beyond just having a consistent bedtime routine, mentally preparing your toddler for the separation can make a huge difference. Laying out what the separation will look like can help ease your toddler’s emotions so they know what to expect.
Create a quick “goodbye” ritual
Having a consistent exit plan will make the situation feel more habitual and help your child cope. Give them a brief kiss, hug, pat on the back, or say “I love you” before leaving. It’s important to be brief rather than linger. Once you say goodbye, stand firm with your exit to avoid confusion and build consistency.
Use a lovey or blanket
A lovey or blanket can help your little one feel less alone as they transition out of their separation anxiety. (Make sure that your child is old enough to sleep with a lovey. The American Academy of Pediatrics outlines safe sleep for babies under 12 months. Make sure they’re alone on a flat surface without additional blankets or toys). Introduce their lovey or blanket during their bedtime routine to help them feel more at ease. Additionally, many toddler sleep products can promote a relaxing and safe environment that’s optimal for sleep.
Healing Your Sleep Schedule: Sleep Shore Sleep Services
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By the end of the first week, he was going to bed in his crib and not crying at all. I truly didn’t think that this could or would happen let alone for it to take less than a week!!! He now sleeps through the night every night and goes to bed without a fuss. I very highly recommend this sleep consultation service! If you are struggling with your child’s sleep habits (or lack thereof) like I was, talk to Danielle and be prepared for her to change your life.”
-MOM OF A 2.5-YEAR-OLD