Toddler separation anxiety at night

Follow this sleep expert’s advice on how to deal with your toddler’s separation anxiety at bedtime. By Licia Selepe


Separation anxiety is a developmental stage almost all toddlers go through. It’s not only in the morning when you leave for work or drop her off at crèche that your toddler will be affected by separation anxiety. Often toddlers tend to protest for a parent to stay with them at bedtime too.

ALSO SEE: Ages and stages of separation anxiety

Why it happens?

Toddlers still need to develop their inner confidence to feel more secure when parents are not present, says Una van Staden, sleep expert and owner of Pikanini Baby Academy. At this age, your child doesn’t have a strong sense of time, so she doesn’t know when you’ll return. A toddler interprets the amount of time, whether you are leaving them in a room for a few minutes or at daycare for a few hours, as the same. When an object (or in this case you) is hidden from sight, toddlers often become upset that the item has vanished for good.  To help with separation anxiety, your toddler needs to know that objects continue to exist even though they can no longer be seen or heard (object permanence). Be sure to say goodbye to your toddler, as to increase object permanence. By sneaking out, they experience anxiety when they realise that you are no longer there.

How does it affect sleep?

Most toddlers who experience separation anxiety are unsettled at nap or bedtimes. They also stop sleeping through the night and often wake up crying, seeking attention from you. While toddler separation anxiety at night means that you won’t get much sleep, remember that it’s just a phase that will pass. In the meantime try these tips from Una:

  • Spend quality time with your toddler during the day, such as playing floor games or reading stories.
  • Play more games that include object permanence. Examples are hide and seek and peekaboo.
  • Don’t rush bedtime. Set aside at least 45 minutes for a bath and bedtime routine.
  • Settle your child in the bed you want them to sleep in for the night, so you don’t have to move them.
  • Should your toddler walk through to your room, walk her back to her room, giving her a hug and explain that it is bedtime and you will see her in the morning.
  • It can be beneficial to offer her a favourite stuffed animal as a soother and sleep companion in your absence.

ALSO SEE: 5 toddler sleep problems sorted

Despite the fact that it can be difficult to hear your toddler cry out at night for you, remember that separation anxiety has a positive aspect: it shows that you and your toddler have formed a solid bond and she doesn’t want to be away from you.


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