Two Year Old Bedtime Anxiety
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.”
Published November 10, 2014. Last updated July 15, 2017.