My toddler has a lot of trouble separating from me at bedtime and during the day. What can I do to help him sleep better?
Separation distress usually emerges around 6 months when infants develop a strong attachment to their primary caregivers. It typically peaks between 18 and 24 months, but can last longer. For children to become independent sleepers and “sleep through the night,” they must learn to tolerate being apart from parents so that when they awaken at night they can resume sleep without re-connecting with them.
Help your toddler learn to gradually confront, cope with, and eventually master his own anxiety by doing some planned “fear-busting” activities. This may be difficult for both of you at first, and that is completely normal. Start your efforts during the day and not during the night.
Daytime Practice Tips:
- If you haven’t already done so, it’s time to establish a transitional object (day and night). This can be a blanket, soft toy, or simply something your child loves such as a toy car. Be sure, though, it is an object that is safe to leave your child to play with alone and appropriate for his age. Check out this video about one way you can do this with your little one.
- During the day, set the “separation” bar low, then raise it gradually as your toddler masters each step along the way. Start by simply leaving the room for a couple of seconds, then quickly reappear to show your toddler that you always return when you go away. For older children who do not need constant monitoring for safety, get them involved in a highly preferred activity and teach them to play independently by leaving them alone for a few minutes at a time.
- If your toddler remains in your hip pocket no matter where you go in the house, ask him to run a few in-home “errands.” Plant preferred toys or surprise items down the hallway, in a bedroom, under a bed, or in the basement. This strategy helps combat fear/avoidance with a competing emotion of approach/excitement. At first, accompany him part way and make items easier to find to get his self-confidence growing.
- Do not avoid opportunities to separate. Never try to sneak out, and always let your child know when you are leaving. Start by leaving your toddler with a familiar caregiver and take a walk around the block a few times each day. Hire a familiar baby-sitter and shop for groceries. Drop your toddler off with grandparents, friends, relatives (familiar people) for short periods. Your toddler needs MORE opportunities to experience “happy” separations and see that you always return.
- Develop a standard, matter-of-fact “good-bye” routine. For example, “Mommy is going to the gym, I will be back after snack time.” Give him a warm hug and kiss, say “good-bye,” and depart promptly. Lingering around to provide physical or verbal reassurance only makes things worse. Allow the caregiver to manage him if he becomes upset. Once you are out the door it won’t take long until he moves on and starts enjoying himself again.
After a few weeks of “fear-busting,” both you and your toddler will be more confident, relaxed, and self-assured during age-appropriate separations during the day. Now it’s time to teach him to fall asleep independently at bedtime. There are many options to accomplish this task, many of which are discussed elsewhere on this website. Just remember to set the bar low and go slow. You and your toddler will be getting the sleep you deserve in no time.