Child Separation Struggles at Bedtime and Through the Night

Smiling siblings reading book together while lying on bed

I don’t know about you, but by my children’s bedtime rolls around, I am pretty spent and ready for my own down time. I talk with families all the time about struggles at bedtime and through the night. So many parents are exhausted by the end of the day; the last thing they want to do is struggle though bedtime routine or have to wake up frequently with their little ones in the middle of the night. No one is getting sleep in these scenarios. The next day, they wake up tired and repeat the next night. In order to break this cycle, we need to understand what is going on with our child during this time.

Children protest and stall at bedtime because they do not want to separate from mommy or daddy, but in order for everyone in the house to get optimal sleep, children need to feel a sense security to be able to separate. This work can be done during the day in order to improve sleep at night.

Dr. Becky Kennedy, Clinical Psychologist and Parenting Consultant, states, “Through their evolutionary attachment system, children perceive changes as threat; until changes are explained and an environment is deemed to be safe, children seek proximity to their parents. Sleep is the ultimate separation, as children are tasked with being alone for 10-12 hours in the dark. Sleep struggles are separation struggles; a child must be able to access a feeling of calm for distance to feel safe.”

Have you ever felt so tired in the evening, and then when you lay your head on the pillow, your brain started going a million miles a minute?! Your body feels so tired, but your brain won’t stop. When our body and brain slow down at night, our feelings and worries emerge. This happens in children as well at night, enhancing their fear and separation. When children feel this way, their immediate reaction is to want to be with mommy or daddy. Dr. Becky shares some effective strategies, first focusing on feelings during the day, then strategies at night to ease nighttime worries and fears for children, and make bedtime more enjoyable for everyone!

During the day and night:

  • Come up with a few nighttime mantras to repeat throughout the day and during bedtime routine: “Riley is safe, Mommy is near, My bed is cozy.”
  • Hot Cocoa Breaths: Picture yourself holding a cup of hot cocoa. Smell the scent, breathing through the nose. Then breathe out very slowly through the mouth to start cooling off the hot cocoa. Long out-breaths activate our parasympathetic (rest and restore) system, so long exhales are key. Practice these breaths during the day, when during periods of separation (it can be as short as using the bathroom or taking a shower) to build the association between deep breaths and separation, then use this during bedtime routine.
  • Act out bedtime struggles through pretend play, using stuffed animals, trucks, or dolls. One truck can be the child not wanting to go to sleep and the other truck can be the parent repeating the mantras and using hot cocoa breaths. The “parent truck” can say things like, “Hmm…I wonder what she is worried about? It’s bedtime…what will dump truck do?”

At night:

  • Create a story that you repeat each night, explaining where you will go when you leave your child’s room: “Daddy walks out then walks to his room, brushes his teeth, goes to sleep, wakes up in his room, brushes his teeth, comes to your room for a hug.”
  • Place a picture of you next to your child’s bed. In the reverse, place a picture of your child next to your bed and explain that when you have trouble sleeping, you look at it and say, “Ah, there is Riley. I’m safe. I’ll see her soon.”
  • Create a bedtime routine chart with pictures of each step in the routine.
  • Create a step by step, predictable routine that lasts for 20-30 minutes each night before bed. If the routine drags on with many extra requests, it can show the parent is anxious about separating. In the beginning, your child may protest the change, but once they learn your expectations around sleep, the routine will be much more enjoyable.
  • When your child protests, say, “Nighttime feels tricky. Of course you want more time with me. I am finished with books for tonight; we will read more in the morning. Let’s look here, ah, yes, it’s time for brushing. I will make sure you are safe. I will always make sure you are safe.”
  • A gentle massage before bed.
  • Tell your child you will draw a picture or write a note and put it on her nightstand while she sleeps.

I highly recommend you follow #drbeckyathome for life-changing parenting advice!


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