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Sleepless Nights & Tiny Worries: Navigating How Toddler Anxiety Impacts Sleep

Plus 5 Effective Ways to Help Toddlers Overcome Anxiety and Build Confidence

A toddler with sleep anxiety

Does your toddler experience some type of anxiety at bedtime? Whether it’s separation anxiety, anxiety with bedtime itself, anxiety of being alone, fear of the dark, or anxiety with “what if I don’t fall asleep,” my daughter is PROOF that you can get through it.

I typically say I specialize in #toddlersleep but in reality, it seems to be more specifically related to toddlers with some type of anxiety. Before we get more into the nitty gritty of some toddler anxieties, I want to share my personal story of my 9 year old daughter.

My oldest was diagnosed with anxiety disorder specifically with bedtime. I knew she needed more help than I could provide, and she was having many major meltdowns where she wouldn’t act like herself. We referred to them as “episodes.”

It broke my mama heart to watch her go through them. Her brain could not “switch” back to her normal sweet self, and during these episodes she didn’t care what she said or did.

We got her the help she needed, and I reassessed our bedtime routine and plan. I also changed my expectations with her regarding bedtime. She needed more help and support than my other two girls. Luckily, my two other daughters understood because they could tell the difference when their big sis had an episode.

My job was to help my daughter feel safe, loved, and supported. I had to consciously tell myself to stay calm and try to talk through it rather than reacting. We talked about bedtime during the day, I told her when she was ready to fall asleep without me in there to let her know, but for now I was there for her. Sometimes it was a blur. Most times it felt like bedtime was never going to improve. It was also putting a strain on her and my relationship since I was needed from the moment my girls woke up until well past 9pm.

And if she woke up at night, she needed me in her room until she fell back asleep. I was utterly exhausted, tapped out, and physically and mentally done. But I kept trying for my oldest baby girl, because she needed me in order to feel safe.

While sitting in her room, I would text my husband on the bad nights saying I couldn’t do it anymore, but also I knew she needed me. And he was the sweetest. He said “she is blessed to have you as her mom.” And other nice things that kept me going that I don’t remember anymore. His words would remind me why I was giving my evenings to her even though I was exhausted and wanted "me time."

We continued to discuss how she could eventually fall asleep without me in her room, and she started to be more confident with the idea. I didn’t bribe her or offer rewards. We tried rewards previously and they worked for 1-2 months and then there was another issue. It was a constant vicious cycle in the early days.

Also, let me be VERY clear: if staying in the room with your child until they fall asleep is working AND what they need, there is absolutely no shame in that game. You are an AMAZING parent. Keep on chugging along.

Therapy may or may not have helped her (we had a goal of less anxiety at bedtime, but the therapist never communicated a plan) but I did learn to give myself grace. The therapist did say some things that helped me switch how I thought about bedtime and being in her room. It helped me be able to stay more calm and talk rather than react. This made the biggest difference.

Before starting therapy, she would be so mad that she couldn't stand being touched at all, which made me very sad because the best way I know how to help as a mom was hugging. Hugging is my super power. As we progressed, our daughter started to come to me more during the day, listen more when we were having a conversation, and let me touch her arm or give her hugs.

We started to see glimpses of our happy girl again. And when she would have an episode, it would be much shorter and we would be able to talk through it. The episodes started to decrease in length, and became less frequent. The moral of the very long story is that there is hope when you get the support that you and your child need.

Whether that support looks like seeing a therapist, talking to the school counselor if it’s affecting them in school, and/or hiring a sleep consultant because you just don’t know what to do or where to start.

I learned a lot along the way. And I can confidently say that my daughter is now:

✨ confidently falling asleep after I kiss her goodnight

✨sleeping through the night

✨IF she wakes up at night she CONFIDENTLY falls back asleep without issue

✨sleeps later

✨is happier during the day

✨can verbally label her emotions and feelings- and let me tell you, this is HUGE

Here are 5 effective ways to help your toddler overcome anxiety:

  1. Have a consistent bedtime routine to help them know what to expect and feel safer

  2. Communicate during the day about bedtime, your expectations, and actively LISTEN to your toddler's concerns

  3. Seek help when it is beyond your capabilities- see a therapist for you and/or your child, and hire a sleep consultant

  4. Find ways to help them feel supported at night. This may mean laying in their bed, on the floor, sitting in a chair, or check ins.

  5. Reduce the pressure of "it's time to fall asleep." If your toddler says that they're not tired or they don't want to go to sleep, you say, "That's ok, you don't have to fall asleep right now. We are still going to get ready for bed."

Here's an extra tip: don't forget to snuggle your toddler! Check out this blog post to read about the benefits of snuggling your toddler at bedtime!

A sleep consultant specializing in toddler sleep

Anna is a certified pediatric sleep consultant, mom of 3 kids, and is married to her college sweetheart. Her passion is to empower parents and provide them with the confidence that they are doing the right things, and sometimes that includes needing help. We can't do it on our own, and that's ok!

Please share this blog post with another mama that may need to hear this!

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