How to Stop Nighttime Separation Anxiety

Micah Abraham, BSc

Written by

Micah Abraham, BSc

Last updated October 10, 2020

How to Stop Nighttime Separation Anxiety

Nighttime separation anxiety is most commonly associated with children, but it is an issue that can affect both children and adults. It's characterized by anxiety and fear when left alone and expected to sleep without someone else present.

Addressing this issue can be tough, especially because many of the tools used to get used to being alone are harder to do at night. The following article will provide some nighttime separation anxiety tips for both children and adults.

Childhood Separation Anxiety

Many children that experience any separation anxiety do so without a clear reason. But parenting does play a role, especially in fighting it.

Nighttime separation anxiety is basically just a fear of being alone at night away from the parents. It can be caused by strange noises, by an over-attachment to the parents, and by the child (of any age) being lost in their own thoughts.

There is a tendency as a parent to want to respond to your child's cries. Many are under the unfortunate belief that children only cry because they truly need you and that if you don't respond, it means you are a neglectful parent. The reality is that children are "trained" to act in certain ways. When a baby cries, and you immediately come to their rescue and acknowledge how much they need you, you are essentially rewarding this behavior, causing them to repeat it next time.

You need to limit the amount of reinforcement they get from their crying. Consider the following:

  • If you know nothing is wrong with your child and they simply want you there, do not respond to the cries. It can be hard, but you do not want the child to think or feel that crying will always get you. You also don't want to increase the attachment too much. Attachment is a good thing, but too much attachment can lead to trouble being alone.
  • If you don't know if something is wrong (meaning they could have hurt themselves, soiled a diaper, etc. then go in and check on them but do not make a fuss. Act like you're checking on a lamp or a door lock. You get in, you check, you kiss on the head, and then you get out. You stay as calm as possible and avoid bringing further stress to the situation.

One of the biggest fears that a parent can have is the idea that they are missing a child's call for help. They worry that the child might be in serious trouble and that if they don't respond they'll miss it.

There's little you can do about this fear, just as there is little you can do to make sure your child is safe 100% of the time. The best thing you can do is always make sure your child's crib is as safe as possible. And if your anxiety is too strong and you feel like you absolutely have to go in, then still do your best to maintain a calm appearance so that your child doesn't pick up on your own fears.

Don't forget that technology is available as well. You can always purchase some type of monitor that you can use to watch your child from a remote area and ensure that nothing is wrong. Technology has advanced considerably, and these options are always there for you.

The vast majority of nighttime separation anxiety in children will eventually go away on its own. Until then, making sure that you do not reinforce the behavior can be an important tool towards helping your child overcome this anxiety.

Adult Nighttime Separation Anxiety

Interestingly, many adults also can have some nighttime separation anxiety, especially in long-term relationships. This type of anxiety is complex because it differs from other adult separation anxiety and is often misunderstood.

Adult separation anxiety in general causes issues like:

  • Jealousy
  • Fear of being single
  • Distrust
  • Control issues

It is actually somewhat indistinguishable from similar personality characteristics, and still not an excuse for negative behavior. This is different from nighttime separation anxiety, however, which tends to be fairly similar to the way it is experienced by children. It's not a fear of being separated from parents so much as it's a fear of being alone in a person's bed.

Sometimes this is due to traumatic issues, like an attack at night or a partner that cheated. Other times it's due to basic anxiety - interestingly, anxiety has a controlling component that often affects thoughts, so those that are experiencing anxiety may find that when they're alone they start to feel unsafe or uncomfortable, and their mind starts to wander towards negative things.

This can even occur when a partner is there, but emotionally/physically distant. For example, if they have chosen to sleep on the other side of the bed or they are outside in the living room doing an activity. When you're used to someone around you, it can have an interesting effect on the mind.

This type of anxiety is best reduced using standard anti-anxiety techniques. You can also consider the following strategies:

  • Change Locations When you are sleeping alone in your home, consider moving somewhere other than your bed. Your bed is associated with a person. Sleeping somewhere else can ensure that you don't have that feeling of emptiness.
  • Write a Journal When anxious thoughts are keeping you awake, write them in a journal. Often journaling reduces your mind's tendency to overly focused on things that stress you out, and gives you a place to vent. Place anything you can't stop thinking about in the journal, even if it is not anxiety-related.
  • Utilize Technology Adults now have technology that can help as well. If you own a smartphone, download some boring podcasts and turn them on a very low volume - just enough that you can only make out the words if you try very hard. Podcasts and voices give a feeling of not being alone and act as white noise that helps you fall asleep.

Still, adults that have problems sleeping alone at night will benefit best from traditional anxiety reduction strategies.

Questions? Comments?

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Where can I go to learn more about Jacobson’s relaxation technique and other similar methods?

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You can ask your doctor for a referral to a psychologist or other mental health professional who uses relaxation techniques to help patients. Not all psychologists or other mental health professionals are knowledgeable about these techniques, though. Therapists often add their own “twist” to the technqiues. Training varies by the type of technique that they use. Some people also buy CDs and DVDs on progressive muscle relaxation and allow the audio to guide them through the process.

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