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Two Year Old Bedtime Anxiety

Two Year Old Bedtime Anxiety

By Amalah

Dear Amy,

I have one two year old, who, up until this point, has been a fantastic sleeper. He has always slept alone in his crib with little to no protest from 7:30pm until 6:30am. He naps for an hour and a half each day too. Amazing, right?

That is, until two weeks ago. He started daycare full-time a couple months ago, so his napping is now public! And then two weeks ago, we left him overnight for the first time with my sister and her kids for a couple nights. And since then, he’s been a little more difficult going to bed on his own, but not impossible. It’s just gotten progressively worse. These past few nights, if I try to bring him anywhere close to his crib, he will scream his head off and claw at me to stay in my arms. So he wants to sleep in our bed beside us. A week ago, when this happened, I would wait until he was in deep sleep and then carry him to his crib and he would sleep for the rest of the night. Now, he won’t even get in deep sleep. The moment I try to carry him, his eyes flip open and he starts to cry. I’m at my wits end. What do I do to revert him back to his good sleep habits?

We have tried to remove one rail of his crib so he wouldn’t feel trapped and thus keep him in his bed, but that hasn’t worked. He loves it during the day and will roll around his bed and laugh and play, but nighttime! He still screams! I’m totally at a loss, I have never felt so out of control of my usually great sleeper’s sleep habits!!


Sounds like separation anxiety, which is a very, very common nighttime/bedtime issue around age two. It’s especially common if said two year old has recently had a big life change — moving, new sibling, etc. — and I would probably count a new full-time daycare routine and a solo, multi-night visit with relatives as possible triggers as well. (Not to make you feel guilty or anything — big life changes are part of life and often unavoidable. Things happen.  If it wasn’t Thing A that brought this phase on, it would have been Thing B or C or D, if you know what I mean.)

By two years old, children are really, painfully aware of all sorts of stuff that can freak them out before bed. Bedtime means Mom goes away for a really long time. Bedtime means the dark. Bedtime means the possibility of bad dreams, or of their imagination (which is still kinda new and not something they 100% understand or can control yet) running wild with thoughts of monsters and scary things. So they fight bedtime tooth and nail.

It’s a fine line to walk — you don’t want to establish undesirable habits but you also need to acknowledge that your toddler is not doing this on purpose or to be “difficult.” He’s really genuinely afraid, and while WHAT he’s afraid of (be it parental abandonment or monsters under his crib) isn’t real, his FEAR of those things is very, very real to him. You need to comfort him, but continue to set limits and find ways to help him process and deal with his fears independently.

Some tips for toddlers with bedtime separation anxiety:

1) Loveys or security objects. If he doesn’t have a special blanket or toy, it’s not too late to introduce one. Or re-introduce something he’s had since infancy like an old swaddling blanket or a stuffed animal that’s always just been “around,” watching over him from a shelf. Talk about the object as if it’s very, very special and that it’s only job is to make him feel loved and safe. Put that new imagination of his to work, but in a happy, positive way.

2) Nightlights, light-up crib aquariums/musical toys, toddler flashlights, etc. There are a TON of great, soothing-type toys to help with bedtime anxiety. Even if his fear isn’t the dark, specifically, something like a Moon in My Room, Constellation Turtle, or just a really cute nightlight he can keep in bed with him might be worth introducing to his bedtime routine.

3) Play music. When my oldest went through a bit of bedtime anxiety (lots of runaway imagination/fear of bad dreams, mostly), I created a playlist on an old iPod that we’d turn on for him every night. It was a mix of soothing, quiet songs from toddler/preschool favorites like Raffi, Laurie Berkner, Dan Zanes and would close out with instrumental-only songs. (The Vince Guaraldi Trio, in our case.) We played the same songs in the same order every night, and after a week or so the final songs were like toddler melatonin — he was OUT by the end of the playlist.

I think it’s important (since it doesn’t sound like co-sleeping is your personal jam) that he start out the night in his own room. I know this is a super tough call, because you’re trying to simultaneously respect his separation anxiety fears while still removing yourself as a sleep crutch/bad habit. You can try starting bedtime earlier, incorporating relaxation techniques (stretching, deep breathing, the relax your toes/knees/butt/tummy game), and then hoping that one or more of the above suggestions is a soothing enough distraction for him to enjoy in your absence. If he wakes up really scared and hysterical (bad dream, for example), bringing him to your bed probably isn’t the worst thing in the world, provided it doesn’t become an EVERY NIGHT thing.

This WILL be a short-term, NOT FOREVER sleep hiccup, most likely. Lots of kids’ sleep goes kaplooey around this age for a million different reasons. Try to treat it like any other developmental-based sleep regression: with a mix of “coping the best you can so everybody gets as much sleep as they can” and  “sticking to your guns over deadbreaker bad habits that could become long-term if you’re not careful.”


About the Author

Amy Corbett Storch


Amalah is a pseudonym of Amy Corbett Storch. She is the author of the Advice Smackdown and Bounce Back. You can follow Amy’s daily mothering adventures at Ama...

Amalah is a pseudonym of Amy Corbett Storch. She is the author of the Advice Smackdown and Bounce Back. You can follow Amy’s daily mothering adventures at Amalah. Also, it’s pronounced AIM-ah-lah.

If there is a question you would like answered on the Advice Smackdown, please submit it to [email protected].

Amy also documented her second pregnancy (with Ezra) in our wildly popular Weekly Pregnancy Calendar, Zero to Forty.

Amy is mother to rising first-grader Noah, preschooler Ezra, and toddler Ike.

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  • liz

    November 10, 2014 at 12:49 pm

    Amalah’s suggestions are great. 

    May I also add a suggestion that you sit quietly in the room for a bit. Get up to do something, put in the wash (or whatever), and come back to sit quietly. Get up to do something (get in your jammies, whatever). Come back and sit quietly. Get up and do something (brush your teeth, whatever). Come back and sit quietly.

    Each task that takes you out of the room takes a little longer, while soothing music is playing. Since you’ve been coming in and out the whole time, it helps give your child a sense that you’re out of the room _right now_ but you will be back soon!

  • Kate

    November 10, 2014 at 3:34 pm

    Two was about when my former awesome sleeper started waking up screaming multiple times each night. Once I realized it was anxiety we moved her into the same room with her older brother and that took care of the issue entirely. Not a solution that will work for everyone obviously but just wanted to throw it out there.

  • Amy Renee

    November 10, 2014 at 5:14 pm

    Amalah’s suggestions are great, and I would add to talk to the daycare teachers. Its possible that he’s not actually sleeping during nap time, or is getting a lot more physical exercise during the day and needs to have bedtime moved earlier – getting over tired kids to go to sleep is the worst. On the other hand, if he is sleeping well at daycare, see what you can do to replicate their setup – maybe put the crib mattress on the floor if they sleep in cots or mats, play classical music if they do that, etc.

  • Karen

    November 10, 2014 at 5:16 pm

    I’m the mom of two kids in full time daycare, and I don’t think we as parents fully appreciate how hard it is on their psyche at this age. I mean, *we* know they are safe and that we will return to pick them up, but *they* don’t really understand that at this age. Our developing brains were wired to maximize survival and there’s an evolutionary advantage for two year olds to elevate their anxiety if they sense a separation coming. I wonder if that is why you can’t put him down anymore? 

    Anyways, don’t be so hard on yourself. It’s temporary and will probably be eclipsed by other, worse problems. 🙂 

    Also, read this:

    And try and find Amy’s post on her blog about earning a “sleep badge.” It’s my most favorite blog post ever!

  • IrishCream

    November 10, 2014 at 7:21 pm

    Unrelated to this question, but not sure where else to leave it…since the redesign, it’s not possible to see who the author of each post is on the mobile version. Not from the homepage, and not when you click on the post. (The “dear Amy” is a good clue, but that only works for Smackdowns!) You have such great authors; I hate to see them not getting their dues because of a design glitch!

    • Isabel Kallman

      Isabel Kallman

      November 10, 2014 at 8:09 pm

      Thanks so much for this feedback. We’ll be going through another redesign over the course of the next few months and will make sure this is addressed. Please bear with us until then and thank you for the very kind words.

  • Mona

    November 10, 2014 at 9:09 pm

    Samesies! My just turned 3 yo was a dream sleeper – unlike his older brother – up until a couple of months ago, when bedtime became trauma central. Crying and he added in self induced vomiting to seal the deal! Ugh. We finally hit on laying him down on the spare couch in the den while hubby plays on the computer- just long enough that he’s truly sleepy, and doesn’t lay awake in bed by himself. Perfect? Probably not, but we knew it was separation anxiety and I can hardly stand to have him CIO when he so obviously just wants us. Plus, ugh, the barf. Anyhow, we’re going with it until he’s old enough to share bunk beds with his brother. I have to remind myself- none of this sleep stuff lasts forever.

  • Leslie

    November 10, 2014 at 10:10 pm

    Oh, man. You might have to prepare yourself for another year or so of this. We, too, had a great sleeper from 5 days old through 2-ish. At some point she started getting up 6-12 times a night. We. Tried. Everything. Not that I’m trying to be a debbie downer, but I just remember wishing every single day that THAT would be the day things would go back to normal, and I’m wondering if that made things worse. Maybe if you can prepare yourself for this to be a potentially long and inevitable phase, there’ll be less pressure to “fix” things and something will happen on its own if the environment is a little less charged….I do think there is something to the idea that a more exhausted kid just won’t sleep well, too. This is always incredibly obvious to us after our kids have had a big Grandpa or Grandma visit. Everyone just gushes “Oh, they’ll sleep SO WELL for you! They’re just going to sleep THE ENTIRE way home!!!” HAAAAAAA. Never. They always sleep much, much worse. Good luck!!!!

  • Ann

    November 11, 2014 at 12:54 pm

    We went through this. Here’s what worked for us.
    Controllable night lights and her musical light up seahorse. She can choose how much light she has and can squeeze the seahorse on when she gets scared.
    Other things:

    1) big girl bed, she was so happy to have a bed like Mommy and Daddy
    2) parent lays in bed with her, for a set amount of time, 3 minutes, and comes back in a set amount of time ( 5 minutes). This cycles with each visit getting shorter and each wait gets longer until one day, just a kiss and a lullaby and no more fear. It’s sleep training, no other words for it except it is more about conditioning her anxiety about being alone. It says, see, Mommy always comes back.
    3) I’d she came into our rim looking for coo sleeping she was allowed in on the warning that there was no playing, no anything but sleeping. The minute she did anything else ( happy playing, singing, jumping) I OK her to her bed, tucked her in, and left her there. Sometimes it took 3 or 3 tried but it’s so important that they fall asleep and wake in their own bed. Anything else will bred habits you may not like.

    We also made up a little sleep nest in our room on the flour for really bad dreams. Once she got her big girl bed, she stopped using it, but it helped for a little while.
    Most of all, it’s a phase. It will pass.

  • Desirae

    November 11, 2014 at 5:47 pm

    We are just on the other side (I think) of this issue. We tried laying down with her and moving her, which worked sometimes. We tried just letting her stay up until we were all ready to go to sleep (no fun!).

    We settled into a groove where we stayed in the room with her while she fell asleep, with a phone or laptop to entertain the waiter. Hubbie and I do the duty every other night. It seemed like a drain on the schedule, but sometimes an hour in a dark room was just what I needed. 🙂 Plus I will always remember sitting there listening to her pretend burp and yell out ‘SCUSE ME!’

    We also made the transfer to a toddler bed during the escapade since she started climbing. Now we are putting her down (with a bottle, i know, not recommended) and leave her door cracked. She is usually quiet, but sometimes talks/yells, but never too upset. She doesn’t leave her toddler bed but sometimes throws all her stuff on the floor when she means business.  

    It’s working for us now for now. We basically started small but kept pushing into a better routine as allowed. It’s been a long couple of months tho!

  • Mary

    November 11, 2014 at 11:04 pm

    I adore this post on “bad habits” and sleep from the AskMoxie blog.

  • Mary

    November 12, 2014 at 3:28 am

    This is what worked for us: Teeth, Bath, PJs, Snuggle in Mom & Dad’s bed with a 10 minute show on her ipad. Then into her room and her bed with mom laying with her for 5 minutes. Then dad comes in and mom leaves and dad tucks her in and says goodnight. She comes and gets me sometimes at night but I return her to her bed and lay with her until she seems comfortable which usually isn’t too long because she’s legit tired. Heck, anything that works and you don’t mind doing…WIN.