How to Handle Separation Anxiety in a Toddler

By Jess Walnofer

Separation anxiety. It’s tough. No one really likes to be alone. Whether you’re introvert or extrovert, I think loneliness is something everyone experiences. Even the wee little humans.

Separation anxiety in a toddler is so difficult. You’re teetering between the need to teach them and comfort them at the same time. On top of that, it is very hard for them to express exactly what they want and need. Their little bodies are so full of emotion and feelings, but they don’t always know how to let those feelings out.

What a wonderful thing to be needed so much by a babe whose world revolves around you, mama. What a wonderful thing, indeed. 

As moms, we can usually interpret what our little people want, but sometimes it’s a guessing game. When Liam wakes up every hour each night, all I see is his restlessness and feel my heavy eyelids. But eventually, I’ll figure out what it is that is bothering him. Usually, the answer is teething, gassy tummy, or he happened to miss nap that day and is overtired. However, we’ve recently entered into a new phase… fear of separation. 

Liam has always been very attached to me, and I to him. He could be sleeping in the next room and I’d be missing him. But recently, he’s started to miss me as well. He has a need to have me right by his side, at every moment. If he wakes up and I’m not there, he’s sad. If I have to go somewhere without him, he’s sad. Even if I have to simply use the restroom or take a shower, his little heart is shattered. 

Don’t get me wrong, I love that he loves me so much and I want to soak up as much snuggles as he’ll let me have. However, when they snuggles start happening between the hours of 1-5 am, they make for a very sleepy mama and a very crabby baby. 

This left me thinking about why separation anxiety happens in toddlers and how we can handle it. 

How to Handle Separation Anxiety in a Toddler

Dependency.

While my son is so determined to be independent in most things, he really isn’t “independent”. He loves to learn and do new things all on his own, but he’s always looking for me or his dada. He’s watching for us to clap and tell him good job, he’s making sure we’re following him around whenever he decides to go somewhere, and he’s making sure he isn’t being independent alone. Ironic, huh?

So really, he just wants to know he is protected, loved, watched over… and we are the ones who make him feel that way. Which is the best job in the world, even if we never clock out. 

Loneliness. 

Since I became a mama, I have hardly left Liam’s side. He is with me every second of every day. I am his safe place, his best friend, his constant. However, I do leave him at bedtime. I say his bedtime prayers, tuck him in, and close the door. This has been our routine for months, so why is he suddenly terrified to be alone? Well, from what I’ve read, toddlers really start to differentiate between when mama is with them and when she isn’t. They start to realize that you are willingly walking out of the room, closing the door, and leaving them. 

I feel this in my soul, because I hate being alone. I’m almost certain that if my husband was gone for even a night, I wouldn’t be able to sleep either. So I get it. Realizing your toddler has all of these real, very understandable feelings makes it so much easier to understand why they are sad. 

Just a Phase. 

As with everything else you have conquered as a mom thus far, this too shall pass. It can be draining to be needed every second of the day and then every hour each night. Or to spend 40 minutes rocking them to sleep, only to have them wake up as you lay them down because they don’t want to leave the comfort of your arms. I totally get it. 

I always wonder though, will this be the last time he wakes up in the wee hours of the night needing my presence? Will this be the last time I get to sleep with him in the rocking chair? Won’t I, someday, miss all of this? The answer is yes, I’m sure. Someday I may long for him to need me as much as he needs me today. So I try my best to approach his needs and big feelings with grace and love and remember that I’ll soon miss all of these little moments. 

The picture at the top of this post was taken whenever John and Liam were playing outside. I went outside to be with them. When Liam spotted me, his entire face lit up. We light up their worlds. We cheer them on and make them brave and my heart is so full knowing that he loves me that much. What a wonderful thing it is to be needed by a babe whose world revolves around you, mama. What a wonderful thing indeed. 

xoxo,

Jess 

Have you read Am I Enough?