Having a toddler or young child who suffers from bedtime-induced anxiety can give any parent their own version of these nighttime worries. After all, if you mess with sleep enough it won’t be long before the whole family is dreading your bedtime routine.
Separation anxiety is often a normal stage of development for children, cropping up within the first year and sometimes lasting until a child is 4 years old. The symptoms, intensity, and frequency of episodes vary with each little one and can be easily identified as a fear of being separated from one’s parents or caregivers.
To survive, you need thoughtful strategies that focus on firm limits, compassion, and consistency.
Dealing with this issue during waking hours is one thing — but at night, when mom and dad long for some shuteye, navigating separation anxiety is a special kind of battle. To survive, you need thoughtful strategies that focus on firm limits, compassion, and consistency. If your family is struggling with disrupted sleep, first check with your child’s pediatrician to rule out any underlying medical causes. And then, get to work correcting the issue with any number of these tips.
Make it part of your daily script to reassure your child that he or she is safe and sound. Remind them that you live in a secure and comfortable home and that it’s your job — and your partner’s — to protect your little one day and night. Your child may not have a specific fear that’s upending your nights, so this tactic can act as a general soother.
Create a story
Stories are a great resource for kids and parents working through specific issues. The best part? Anyone can write one that’s tailored to their individual needs — no writing or art degree required.
When creating your story, use clear, concise language and detail how you expect your child to behave at bedtime and in the hours afterward. Assume your child’s point of view and, using a simple structure, walk through the bedtime routine and how to handle any bumps in the night. Using the story, give your child coping mechanisms such as squeezing a favorite stuffed animal, taking deep belly breaths, flipping on a flashlight, and then drifting back to sleep.
Take it a step further and write it all down in a bedtime book. Involve your kid in the book’s creation by asking for some special illustrations. Then, make a quick reading of your book part of your nightly routine.
Bring in a bedtime bag
Empower your little one to self-soothe by packing a special bedtime bag with items that promote feelings of calm and safety. If your child takes to this idea, make a big to-do over switching out the contents weekly so that there’s always something new to discover and, ultimately, to distract at nighttime.
Consider tucking the following into your child’s bag: a special nightlight, a recordable storybook featuring your voice, a photo of the two of you, a lavender sachet, and even a story torch flashlight that can quite literally change the narrative for your kid by projecting scenes from a favorite story on the ceiling.
Mindfulness and meditation are not just for grown-ups. During the daytime hours, encourage grounding and stress-relieving practices with child-appropriate meditations. There are a host of books, CDs, apps, and Youtube videos available that are geared toward kids (check out the Sleep app, for example).
Guided meditations are particularly useful for young children. Look for short recordings that utilize the breath and help promote calm and stillness. Give your son or daughter the right tools during the day and, come bedtime, these resources will be available to help usher in more restful sleep.
Set up a system
Once you have laid out your expectations for bedtime, put a system in place that helps your little one feel in control. Consider creating bedtime passes (bonus if your kid puts an artistic spin on them). Dole out two passes each night to be used to visit mom and dad after bedtime. Each time your child leaves his or her room, they must hand over one of the passes. Give out a star in the morning for each pass that remains unused.
Once your child has accumulated X amount of stars, let him or her cash them in for a prize such as a family movie night, an extra story at bedtime, or a visit to the neighborhood park — just the two of you.
And, if all else fails, be sure to remember all these tips:
Don’t sneak out
If you’re trying to avoid a major meltdown by tiptoeing out of your child’s room, stop that right now. Your goal, in part, is to ease your little one’s bedtime anxieties by establishing trust between you. It’s tough to trust when one of you is sneaking away on a nightly basis.
On that note, if you tell your child you’ll check on them in five minutes, come back and check on them in five minutes. Let them count on you to follow through.
Keep your cool
It may not happen immediately (okay, it definitely won’t happen immediately), but your little one will learn by your example. Don’t make a big deal about leaving when it’s time to say goodnight. Keep it quick, warm, and breezy, and sooner or later your kid will follow suit.
The key to all parenting issues must really be this — consistency. When you develop a plan, no matter what plan you choose, stick with it and see it through. When you waver, you not only undermine your efforts, but you confuse your kid, too.