Sleep Solutions for Anxious Toddlers: 7 Essential Tips for Parents

Aug 24, 2023

Have you just finished bedtime and feel like you lived through Super Smash Bros. with your rambunctious and clingy toddler? Or have you been woken with cries for ‘mommy’ or ‘daddy’ that are becoming a nightly, if not hourly, occurrence? While you just want it to stop, it’s actually an exciting development for your toddler.

They are cementing the concept of object permanence; they understand you exist when you leave. They are also learning their voice matters. You appear when they call for you. And finally, separation anxiety means they are securely attached to you. This is all great for them, but it doesn’t help either of your sleep. These seven tips will help you get some much-needed zzz’s:

1. Establish A Night Time Routine

Even as adults, we all thrive with a routine. We know what to expect, so relaxing into the rhythm is easier. When you have a set bed and wake-up time, you get more rest, and your sleep quality is better too.

For children, this routine is even more critical. Most bedtime routines involve a bath or wipe down, pajamas, teeth brushing, stories, and then off to dreamland. Find what works for your family and evening schedule, and stay the course.

Do you already have a bedtime routine for your little one? Great! Stick with it consistently. Yes, sometimes your evening is a little busier than usual, and you must shorten it. But don’t skip story time. It can help your little one relax. They can refocus on an imaginary world, forgetting their worries for the moment.

2. Limit Technology Before Bedtime

Screens emit blue light, interfering with our bodies’ release of melatonin. This is the hormone that helps you fall asleep. You should limit screen time to two hours of bedtime, with no technology the hour before sleep.

3. Avoid Stimulants

You’re probably aware of the significant stimulants like sugary sodas, caffeine, and energy drinks. But some little-known substances will make your little one the energizer bunny for a night. These include ADHD and cold medications. Chocolate also has small doses of caffeine that can contribute to sleepless nights. While secondhand smoke can have many side effects, it can also interfere with your little one’s bedtime. Avoid this list to help your toddler sleep soundly.

4. Allow Self-Regulation

As you’ve probably discovered, it’s your job to help your children; but you can rarely force them to do anything. It is your job to help your toddler prepare for their bedtime and tuck them in, but it’s their job to fall asleep.

Continue with your routine and bedtime. Give your child their necessary snuggles and decompression time, but set limits. When you say it’s time to go, don’t give into their whining or puppy dog eyes. Give them a wake-up clock or another sleep cue so they understand they must stay in their room even if they’re not ready to doze off. Let them have a small snuggly toy or book to entertain themselves.

Don’t be alarmed if they chatter in their room for a while. We cannot always fall asleep when needed, and they can’t either. They’re learning to self-soothe and self-regulate, so you’ll have a child that can fall asleep independently whenever they need.

5. Encourage Playtime In Their Room

Especially if your little one is young, they may only associate their room with sleeping. Now that they understand sleep means you go away, they get anxious there. Plan some daytime play in their room to remind them it is a safe space. They will start to relax, meaning bedtime will be less of a battle.

6. Take Baby Steps With Planned Separation

Separation anxiety is real and scary for your toddler. It takes some practice for them to understand you will always come back. Target some planned separation if your little one is waking and crying for you throughout the night.

If you have a partner or involved family member, have them do bedtime or watch them during the day. This tends to work better if you’re out of the house running errands or taking some time for yourself. Often, parents find trading off bedtime duties helps keep separation anxiety at bay.

7. Make Time For One-On-One Toddler Time

As you might have guessed, toddlers don’t share well. This applies to your attention too. Even if they don’t have the words to tell you, they notice when you’re not giving them your full attention. And they crave it. They may act up at night if they’re not getting that time during the day. They can feel insecure when you leave them, contributing to nighttime wakings or bedtime struggles.

Aim to give undivided, intentional time to your toddler. It doesn’t take much, maybe 10-15 minutes a day. It’s easiest for some parents to incorporate this into the bedtime routine. Others find a pocket in the day works better. Give your toddler that mini “Yes Day” moment where they can ask you anything or do what they want. This quality time will pay off with a smoother bedtime when they’re not demanding the attention they need.

If you are practicing all these tips, and your toddler is still up for hours on end, speak to your pediatrician. There are many minor medical reasons for sleeplessness, presenting as separation anxiety. If you’re worried, your medical team can ease your fears. They can even recommend professional sleep help or virtual sleep training so you all get the rest you need.