Just when you feel like you have gotten a good sleep routine down with your infant, they become a toddler, and they suddenly will not sleep without you near them.
It can be very challenging for parents when their toddler won’t sleep without them. It can lead to disrupted sleep for both the child and the parents and can be emotionally draining for everyone involved.
If you are a parent that is struggling with a clingy toddler at bedtime, you are likely asking yourself …
Why can’t my toddler sleep without me? A clingy toddler is no reason for concern as it is a common behavior that can happen for several reasons including separation anxiety, fear, recent transitions, or a lack of a consistent bedtime routine. A consistent bedtime routine, room changes, and positive reinforcement can help.
In this article, we will explore some of the possible reasons why children won’t sleep without their parents and offer some tips for helping them develop healthy sleep habits.
Why Toddler Won’t Sleep Without You
There are several reasons why this may be happening, and understanding these reasons can help parents find a solution.
1. They’ve Never Done It Before
It is possible that your toddler has become accustomed to falling asleep with you or with your help.
This is often referred to as sleep associations. This refers to any object or action that a child associates with falling asleep, such as being rocked, breastfed, or held.
When a child wakes up during the night and does not see or feel the sleep association, they may become upset and have difficulty falling back asleep.
Sleep associations are part of the sleep process, but they can become problematic if they require parental intervention to maintain.
If your child has developed a sleep association that is causing them to rely on you to fall asleep, there are several strategies you can try to help break the association:
- Gradually wean your child off the behavior.
- Create a new sleep association that your child can use to fall asleep independently, such as a sound machine or a bedtime story.
- Be consistent with your approach.
2. Scared of the Dark
It is not uncommon for older toddlers to be afraid of the dark.
Consider using a nightlight, offer comfort and reassurance when your child wakes up frightened, and read or tell happy stories before bedtime to help shift their focus from their fears to more positive thoughts.
It is important to be patient and understanding with your toddler as they are going through this stage. With time and consistent support, most children outgrow their fear of the dark.
3. They Have Frequent Nightmares
As toddlers’ imagination and cognitive abilities develop, they might begin to experience nightmares for the first time, which could keep them from wanting to sleep alone.
Comfort and reassure your child, validate their feelings, talk about their fears, and help them understand that their nightmares are not real and that they are safe.
Nightmares can be scary for toddlers, but they usually subside as your child gets older and more capable of understanding their emotions.
4. Just Transitioned From Crib to Bed
It is not uncommon for children to experience difficulty sleeping after the transition from the crib to a bed. The sudden change in the sleep environment is the biggest culprit.
Toddlers are used to the confinement of a crib, which can provide a sense of security and comfort. Moving to a bed can feel overwhelming and unfamiliar, which can cause anxiety and difficulty sleeping.
5. Recent Life Changes
Another reason why children may refuse to sleep without their parents is due to developmental milestones or significant life changes.
Developmental milestones can include learning to crawl, walk, or talk. These can be exciting but also stressful for young children.
As a result, they might need extra reassurance and comfort from their parents at bedtime. This can often make it difficult for them to fall asleep on their own.
Significant life changes such as starting preschool, gaining a new sibling, or having parents go through a divorce can also disrupt a child’s sleep habits and cause them to be extra clingy or have trouble falling asleep on their own.
6. Isn’t Spending Enough Time With You During the Day
It’s possible that your child just misses you! Feeling loved and connected to their parents is important for a toddler’s development.
This need can often manifest itself as difficulty sleeping if your toddler does not feel like they have had enough time with you during the day.
Try to spend quality time with your toddler during the day engaging in activities that they enjoy, set aside one-on-one time, reassure your child, and create a special bedtime routine together.
By providing them with lots of love and attention during the day, you can help them feel more secure and relaxed, which will, hopefully, lead to better sleep.
7. Separation Anxiety
According to a study published in the Journal of Sleep Research, separation anxiety is a significant predictor of sleep problems in young children and has become one of the most common reasons why a toddler will not sleep without a parent.
This can include difficulty falling asleep, frequent night wakings, and refusing to sleep without a parent.
This is a normal developmental phase between the ages of 6 months and 3 years. During this phase, children become more aware of their surroundings and notice when they are separated from their caregivers.
This can lead to fear and anxiety when they are separated from their parents, especially at night when they are alone in their bed.
They may cry, cling, and become upset when their parents try to leave the room, and they may only be able to fall asleep with their parents nearby.
If your child is experiencing separation anxiety, there are several things you can do to help them feel more secure and comfortable at bedtime:
- Establish a consistent bedtime routine that includes calming activities.
- Provide your child with a comfort object that they can hold while falling asleep.
- Gradually decrease the amount of time you spend with your child at bedtime (by their bed, then across the room, then by the door, etc.).
8. Lack of Bedtime Routine
A consistent bedtime routine can be incredibly helpful for toddlers. It provides predictability (which toddlers thrive on) and makes them feel more secure and relaxed.
Bedtime routines also signal bedtime and help your toddler wind down and understand that it is time to go to sleep.
9. Don’t Want To Miss Anything
Believe it or not, toddlers can experience FOMO just as much as adults! Your little one is learning so much, and the world is still so new and exciting to them. They don’t want to miss a thing!
They especially don’t want to feel left out of anything that their parents might be doing without them.
All of this excitement and energy can result in difficulty falling asleep unless they know that their parents are sleeping as well….right beside them!
How To Help Your Toddler Sleep Without You
Regardless of the reason why your toddler will not sleep without you, there are a few things that you can try to help resolve the problem so that both you and your little one get better sleep.
Remember that every child is different, and what works for one child may not work for another. It is essential to stay flexible and adaptable in finding the best approach for your child.
1. Initiate a Bedtime Routine
If you don’t already have one in place, start incorporating a consistent bedtime routine.
Beginning about an hour or so before bedtime, turn off stimulating toys or screens, do bath time, brush teeth, get in jammies, and have quiet time or calming play such as reading stories together.
Try your best to keep the routine as consistent as possible each day so that your little one begins to associate it with bedtime and understands that it will be time to sleep soon.
2. Make Their Room Cozy and Inviting
Try to make the room as cozy and relaxing as possible before bedtime.
During your bedtime routine, have a lamp on instead of a bright light, make sure the temperature in their room is comfortable, and pick up any toys off of the floor that they would be tempted to play with.
Make their bed as comfortable and inviting as possible with any blankets or stuffed animals that they like to sleep with.
If the room is very stimulating in general with bold, bright colors or intense designs, consider a room makeover to make the area more calming and conducive to sleep.
3. The Scooting Chair Technique
One way to gradually wean the amount of time you spend with your child while they are falling asleep is the scooting chair technique.
Begin by sitting in a chair next to their bed for a certain amount of time. After a few days, scoot the chair to the middle of the room, and shorten the time by a few minutes.
A few days later, move the chair to the door, and decrease the time again. Eventually, the goal is for your child to fall asleep without you being in the room.
4. Check in Frequently
Sometimes explaining to your child that you will be back in to check on them shortly is all the reassurance they need to fall asleep.
Tell them that you will be back in a few minutes, and gradually increase the time that you are away until your child has no issues falling asleep.
5. Let Them Pick Out a New Light Night or Bedding
Positive reinforcement can be a good strategy! Allowing your child to pick out their own night light or bedding could be enough of an incentive to make them want to stay in their own room.
6. Give Them a Bottle of “Monster Spray”
If it is a fear of the dark or of monsters that is keeping your child from sleeping, empower them with a little bottle of monster spray!
This will help them feel powerful and protected, which will, hopefully, give them the comfort they need to fall asleep.
7. Make Sure They Are Tired but Not Overtired
While it sounds contradictory, being overtired can often keep a toddler from being able to fall asleep.
Overtired children will often be fussy and will fight sleep once they are put to bed, even though they are exhausted.
It is best to put your toddler down for bed when they are awake but showing signs of being a little sleepy.
8. Offer Rewards for Sleeping Alone
Another positive reinforcement idea! Consider creating a “rewards system” by creating a sleep chart where they can put a gold star on every night that they sleep alone.
Set a goal (such as five stars) that your child can aim for, and allow them to pick a special treat when they reach their goal.
9. Be Patient but Firm
Your challenge as a parent will be finding the perfect balance of being both patient and firm with your toddler during this process.
It can be easy to become frustrated; however, you must remain patient with your toddler and understand that it is a normal part of development beyond their control and understanding.
Be careful not to become angry with your child, but you must be firm so that your child learns what kind of behavior you expect.
In conclusion, it is quite common for toddlers to have difficulty sleeping alone, and it can be a challenging time for both the child and their parents.
However, with patience, consistency, and the right strategies, parents can help their toddlers develop healthy sleep habits and learn to sleep independently.
Charlynn is an educator and mom to fraternal boy/girl twins. She loves learning through the experiences she has with her littles and using her knowledge to help other moms as they embark on the journey of motherhood.