Jess' Photo
Jess VanderWier

Registered Psychotherapist

Shannon's Photo
Shannon Wassenaar

Registered Psychotherapist

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

It’s especially hard for toddlers and preschoolers to confidently handle separation because their brains get stuck on one thought at a time. 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.”

Because they can’t hold both of these thoughts at the same time, the idea of being away from you is incredibly daunting! All they can think about is the fact that you are leaving them alone. Their one-track mind is stuck on thoughts like: 

  • “My mom is leaving me alone!”
  • “I want to spend more time with my dad!”

And, when their mind gets stuck on this thought, their behaviour will be impacted. Now, they are feeling frazzled. Their brain is telling them that they MUST keep you close. So, they start doing whatever it takes to keep you near. This might look like clinging, crying, whining, procrastination, or coming out of bed looking for you.

Reason 2: Your Child is Wired for Closeness With You

Humans are wired for contact, connection and closeness. Imagine your little one; for the entire day leading up to bedtime, they’ve been cared for by their trusted leaders. There probably hasn’t been too much time that they have been left alone. Now, bedtime comes, and we expect them to be in bed without us for 10-12 hours!

Imagine the alarm bells going off in their minds! Separation sends a threat signal to their brains and bodies; when your little one feels threatened, they go into fight, flight, or freeze mode:

Fight mode might look like: 

  • Power struggles over teeth brushing
  • Screaming when you tell them it’s bedtime 
  • Kicking or hitting you when you ask them to put on their pyjamas  

Flight mode might look like: 

  • Running away when you mention bedtime 
  • Hiding from you when you ask them to go brush their teeth

Freeze mode might look like: 

  • Falling on the floor crying when you tell them it’s time for bed

If you notice any of these behaviours at bedtime, it could mean separation is your struggle.

Looking for more toddler sleep support? Our Solving Bedtime Battles course is packed with easy-to-digest lessons, practical bedtime tools, visual bedtime schedules, and soooo much more! Explore the course here.

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. In contrast, other kids are more anxious when they have to be apart from their caregivers. They might cling to a parent’s leg or melt down when you leave the room. Some kids feel more deeply impacted by separation.

This is just who they are!

As common as this might be, it can make bedtime a struggle. Deeply sensitive kids typically find separation challenging. They might cry when a parent leaves the bedroom, beg them not to go, or refuse to stay in bed alone.

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: 

  • 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.

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 here!

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.