While my son had some separation anxiety when he was a toddler, for my daughter that separation anxiety has continued and it’s something that she still struggles with at 9. I’ve written before about how we cope with it but I wanted to expand further on how we deal with separation anxiety at night. As most of these suggestions require explanations, they are more suitable for older children between 5 years old and 10 years old. Here’s how we’ve dealt with separation anxiety at bedtime in our 9 year old.
Make Sure That Separation Anxiety at Bedtime is Definitely the Problem
There could be other things your child is worried about at night so it’s worth making sure that not wanting you to leave is really separation anxiety and not something else. It might be that they are struggling to sleep and finding that stressful. They are having bad dreams or nightmares. If they are worrying about something at school or in some other part of their life, it’s likely bedtime is the time it plays on their mind. Have a chat with them about what’s going on before you start dealing with the problem as separation anxiety at bedtime.
Have a Good Bedtime Routine
Children who are under or over tired will struggle more with separation anxiety than a child who goes to be at the right time. It’s important to make sure they are getting the right amount of sleep for their age. This is easiest to achieve by having a good bedtime routine that involves going to bed at a consistent time. It also helps to do the same things before bedtime. The classic bath, book, bed routine works well but as long as it’s calm and consistent, you can do what ever suits you. A goodnight ritual can also help. This can be certain words you say, a certain number of kisses you give or a particular hug. They can all help a child feel ready for separation and sleep.
Stay While they Fall Asleep if you Want to
If your child wants you to stay with them until they fall asleep, and that’s something you’re happy to do, then go for it. You won’t end up in their university accommodation helping them sleep every night, they will eventually decide they want to learn to fall asleep without you. Don’t feel guilty for doing it if it works for you and your child.
Stay With Them Until They are Sleepy but Not Asleep
Staying until she is asleep doesn’t work for me (I need some alone time in the evening) but we’ve had success with me sitting by her bed and holding her hand until she is sleepy but not actually asleep. This usually only takes 5 or 10 minutes and some nights she asks me to leave earlier as she is ready to sleep. I always give her a warning one minute before I leave so it doesn’t come as a shock. We’ve been doing this since she was about 7 years old and for the most part it works well for us.
Ease Separation Anxiety at Bedtime with an Object
When she is particularly struggling to separate from her Dad, we’ve found that something physical can help her feel better. Quite often she will literally take the shirt off his back and wear it to sleep in. If you’d like to keep your clothes on, I’ve also had success with giving her a teddy that I had when I was little and crocheting things that she can have in bed with her.
Popping Back in Every Ten Minutes
When I was really struggling to get out of the bedroom without her crying I suggested that I just go out for ten minutes and then come back to check on her. The idea that I would return and wasn’t gone for the night, really calmed her down. We started to do that every night, she was always asleep by the second check and soon was asleep by the first one. I gradually started leaving longer between checks until I stopped doing it entirely and just reinstated them if she was having a difficult phase, usually before returning to school after the holidays
My Most Effective Trick for Separation Anxiety at Night
I really stumbled on this one by accident but it has been the most effective thing I’ve tried. Her separation anxiety tends to come in phases and recently I could see a phase about to start. It was just before she turned 9 years old and was about to start at junior school so I wasn’t surprised to see a resurgence of her anxiety. She wasn’t crying but I could see she was worried about me leaving and so I said to her “call me if you need me”. She seemed to be reassured by that and I went downstairs as normal.
For me, suggesting that she call me was counter intuitive. My aim was for my children to settle to sleep and stay that way, giving me some peace and quiet, but it turned out that was exactly what she needed to hear. She did call me that night, I went in and gave her a hug for a few minutes and then reassured her she could call me again if she needed me. She didn’t and, despite my reminders each night that she could call me, she didn’t call me again at all. It seems that the reminder that, if it turned she did miss me too much, all she had to do was call, was enough to help her settle happily without me.
If separation anxiety is a problem for your child the day time too, you can check out this post on separation anxiety in older children. If you’re having more general sleep issues with an older child, you might also find my post on the 8 year old sleep regression we experienced with my son useful.
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