Why Won’t My Child Let Me Leave at Bedtime? Here Are 3 Common Reasons.

Written By

Shannon Wassenaar
July 12, 2023

This article has been reviewed by Nurtured First’s team of child development experts.

Your child is tired. You’ve just completed their 20-minute calming bedtime routine. You’ve read them a book, and they have their water, so you say “goodnight” and walk towards the door. 

Almost instantly, your child starts melting down, screaming, crying. They don’t want you to leave. You feel like you only have two options. 

Option 1: Lay back down beside them until they fall asleep. You feel trapped and possibly fall asleep yourself. This doesn’t feel great for you, but it beats Option 2. 

Option 2: Ignore and leave them crying in their room. Sometimes, you do this when you feel so frustrated or frazzled, and you just need a moment to yourself. 

What if I told you there was a third option? An option that helps your child fall asleep at night feeling cozy, safe, and close to you. 

In order to offer you a solution to separation struggles like clinging, procrastination, coming out of the bedroom, and more – we first need to understand WHY separation struggles happen.  

Reason 1: Your Child Has a One-Track Mind

Toddlers and preschoolers can find it especially difficult to confidently handle separation because their brains get stuck; younger kids have a one-track mind. They can’t hold the thought: “My mom is leaving me to fall asleep in my bed,” AND hold the thought, “I’m safe. I can fall asleep in my bed. My mom is still caring for me even when she isn’t here.”

Toddlers and preschoolers especially have “stinky” brains. Once they have a thought, it can be incredibly hard for their brains to shift gears because they’re not fully developed.

Even when a child’s brain is physically developed (around ages 5-7), it doesn’t mean the child has the ability to regulate their emotions, tolerate frustration, and solve problems.  

Reason 2: Your Child is Wired for Closeness With You

Humans are wired for contact, connection and closeness. This is true across the entire lifespan. This explains why kids of all ages (even adults) struggle to be alone at bedtime.

Imagine bedtime from a child’s perspective – they’re in close proximity to a safe and trusting adult all day, and suddenly, as soon as it’s evening time, they’re expected to be alone for 10-12 hours. It makes sense that this contrast feels so daunting! 

Separation can signal to the brain that something’s not safe – this threat can send the body into a fight, flight or freeze response. 

Here are a few examples of challenging bedtime behaviours that are often a child’s response to a perceived threat: 

  • Screaming or swearing at you
  • Protesting or pleading with you 
  • Running away or hiding from you 
  • Avoiding or ignoring you 
  • Falling on the floor crying 

If you notice any of these behaviours at bedtime, it can be a sign that your child is struggling to cope with separation at night time. 

Reason 3: Your Child Feels Things Deeply

Highly sensitive or deeply feeling kids often find separation more challenging than easygoing kids (Research actually backs up that our sensitive kids struggle more with separation from birth!)

You might notice how some kids handle separation with ease. Easygoing kids often go to bed without a fight, jump into a crowd of new kids at the park without looking back, and confidently explore their environment independently. Because these kids are more mild-tempered, they can typically learn to regulate their emotions and learn how to cope with the anxiety of separation more quickly than sensitive kids. 

Highly sensitive kids, whether they are two or 12, can be more deeply impacted by separation than mild-tempered kids; these kids feel everything more intensely, so it makes sense that this would also apply to nighttime separation.  They might scream or cry when a parent leaves the bedroom, beg them not to go, refuse to stay in bed, and come out of their room frequently to come find you.

Related Post: Understanding Tantrums in Highly Sensitive Kids

A Bedtime Separation Solution: Building a Connection Bridge

Remember how I said parents usually feel like they only have two options (lay with their kids to sleep or ignore them)? Now, it’s time for me to share Option 3 with you.

Help your child know you are there for them, even when you aren’t right there. In the child development world, we call this building a bridge between you and your child! 

Here are a few examples of how you could do this for younger kids:

  • Draw a heart on your hand and your child’s hand to show how you are connected even when apart. 
  • Tell them a story about how an invisible string connects you.
  • Tell their stuffy secrets about how you want the stuffy to take care of your child when you leave the room.

Here are a few examples of ways to bridge separation with older kids:

  • Offer a parent’s t-shirt to be worn at bedtime
  • Spray their pillow with a parent’s cologne or perfume
  • Put a picture of you together on their nightstand and your nightstand so they feel connected to you throughout the night. 

Bedtime Behaviour is Communication

The protests and tears at bedtime could be your child’s way of telling you they can’t cope with separation; they need more skills and support. When we look at their behaviour from this perspective, it can move us from frustration to compassion. 

This post just barely grazed the surface of all the ways you can help your child if they struggle with separation! If you’re looking for the tools to bridge the separation between you and your child at bedtime, teach coping skills for separation anxiety, and help them with all the other most common bedtime struggles, grab our Solving Bedtime Battles course!  You will get access to actionable strategies you can use tonight! This course is your guide to better sleep – packed with easy-to-digest lessons, practical bedtime tools, visual bedtime schedules, and soooo much more! 

Learn more about Solving Bedtime Battles

Key Takeaways

  1. Separation anxiety at bedtime is common in children, especially toddlers and preschoolers because their brains have difficulty holding multiple thoughts at once.
  2. Being wired for closeness and contact with caregivers makes bedtime separation a challenging experience for children, leading to fight, flight, or freeze reactions.
  3. Children who are highly sensitive often struggle more with separation anxiety.
  4. To help ease bedtime separation, try creating a bridge between you and your child through various techniques, such as drawing hearts on your hands or telling stories about invisible strings connecting you.
  5. Recognizing that your child’s bedtime behaviour is a communication of their difficulty with separation can shift your perspective from frustration to compassion, making it easier to address their needs.

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    Article By

    Shannon Wassenaar
    Shannon is a Registered Psychotherapist, Content Specialist, and Highly Sensitive Parent with a passion for understanding, and promoting human relationships. Shannon holds a Bachelors degree in Psychology, and a Masters degree in Psychotherapy. She began her professional career as a trauma therapist, and continues to support families from a trauma-informed perspective. Shannon uses her knowledge and experience to create educational content for parents, and treatment plans to help families flourish. In her spare time she enjoys taking long walks, playing recreational sports, and sipping a hot latte at a local cafe.