Child Refuses to Sleep Alone: The Neuroscience Behind Separation Anxiety in Children

Child Refuses to Sleep Alone: The Neuoroscience Behind Separation Anxiety in Children


Hi Dr. Joanette. I’m a dad of a three-and-a-half-year-old, and recently my son doesn’t want to go to sleep unless I am in his room. After our bedtime routine and I’ve tucked him in for the night, I can’t leave his room before he falls asleep. He becomes inconsolable if I try to go while he is still awake. This is something new for him, and would you help me understand what this is about?


Hi, and please know that you aren’t alone. Every parent has probably gone through a phase where their child has difficulty falling asleep without their parent in the room.
What might be going on with your child? One of the most important things to remember about bedtime and going to sleep is that nighttime is the longest period that your child is away from you.

This is the longest separation your child experiences every night. Our kids’ brains are wired for safety, and safety for young children means they must stay close to their parents. They constantly seek ways to help them stay near us and feel safe. When you tuck them in and leave the room, the fear and anxiety centers in their brain (the amygdala) sound the alarm, and your child goes into panic mode.

That is the fundamental neuroscience of what is happening. Why it’s happening now and not earlier is likely related to recent family changes.
Whatever that might be, your son is feeling afraid. When a child is fearful, they are acutely aware of how young and vulnerable they are and how much their survival depends on their proximity to a caregiver.

It may feel like he is manipulating you. However, assume the primary motivation behind this behavior is fear, not manipulation.
Some common changes that often trigger sleep difficulties are different daycare arrangements, a move, or a job change for you or your partner. If this happens, your child detects something has changed and doesn’t understand what is happening. Now it’s nighttime, everything slows down, it is dark, and his world feels unsafe.  His body can’t fall asleep unless it feels safe enough to fall asleep. He needs to know you are close by, he is safe, and then he can fall asleep.

Something that I’ve found helpful with my grandkids was a mantra that mom or dad said to them every night before leaving the room. The mantra: “My mommy (or daddy) is near, I am safe, I have my lovey.” Most children have a favorite lovey or transitional object, like a blanket or favorite stuffed animal. If your child doesn’t have a lovey, the last part with the (lovey or transitional object) could be, “my bed is snuggly.”

Some parents I know have recorded the mantra for their young kids on a device that lets their child play the recording for them by simply pressing a button.  Please know that this is a phase, and you won’t be sitting on the floor of your son’s room forever so he can fall asleep.