My daughter is two years and eight months old and she won’t let me out of her sight.
It’s becoming particularly difficult when my husband tries to put her to bed. She says “go away Daddy” and insists I do it. She has always been clingy to me since birth. We had a traumatic birth with the cord round her neck and from early on she found it hard to settle to sleep. I got into the habit of her sleeping in my bed, literally on my chest, as this was the only way she would settle.
At the time, my husband took charge of our then two-year-old son, and we sort of divided up our family this way, with my husband putting our son to bed and I being with my daughter.
Now it is becoming more difficult at home when I need to go out more and leave her with her dad. Last night, I popped out for a few hours to meet friends and my husband said she became hysterical when she realised I was gone. She cried the whole time and would not settle until I was back.
On a positive note, she started preschool for three hours each morning last September and after a few hiccups this seems to be going well.
What can I do to help her settle at night without me?
It is normal for a preschool child to be more bonded with one parent, especially the parent who spends the most time looking after them. Given your history with your daughter, it is completely understandable she would want you there at night when she is settling down to sleep – this is the bedtime routine she is used to.
It is also understandable that as a family you want to move on from this and to get to the situation where she is bonded with her dad and he can put her to sleep in the same way you can. It is hopeful that your daughter is happy attending preschool in the mornings and this shows that with a bit of support she is able to make steps towards independence. Below are some ideas to encourage her further.
Take easy steps first
When your daughter got upset last week, it may have been because you went out at bedtime when she most needs you there. To encourage her to get used to you leaving, it might be best to start at a less needy time and then to build gradually. Indeed, the easiest step might be to “separate” while you remain in the house. For example, to encourage her to feel happy apart from you and to build her security with her father, it might help to go through the following gradual steps:
- Playtime with dad, while you are in another room. If she comes looking for you, you can positively encourage her back – “it’s playtime with dad now”.
- Dad puts her to bed while you are downstairs. If this feels like too big a step you can break it down further, with her dad first doing part of the bedtime routine (such as reading her a story) and you finishing it with the final tuck in.
- Leave the house for a short time: pick a time she is likely to be relaxed and set up a nice play time with her dad. “Mum is out for 15 minutes and you are going to play tea set with dad.”
- Leave the house for a longer period of time.
- Leave the house at bedtime.
Prepare your daughter for a separation
When children are anxious separating, it is tempting to try to sneak out without telling them so you can avoid the tears. However, this can be counterproductive as they can become more anxious and even hypervigilant trying to spot when you are going to leave next. Generally, it is better to have a clear goodbye and to warmly respond to any upset or tears.
For example, you might give a good bye kiss and say “mum is going out to shops and back soon”. If she gets upset, you are reassuring and upbeat. You can remind her that you will be back and dad will be minding her but you make sure to leave without too much fuss. This way she gets used to you leaving and learns that you only leave when you tell her and that you always come back as promised.
Use a picture chart
Using a picture chart can help some young children manage a separation.
For example you might have four pictures (photos or even drawn ones work well) of:
- You explaining you have to go to shop.
- You giving her kiss good bye.
- Her playing with dad while you shop.
- You returning home for a hug and to show her what you got shopping.
You can draw these pictures together and work through them in advance to help her prepare for the separation and talk through her feelings.
Change the family routine
To encourage balance in the family dynamic you might want to shake up your routines. This might mean that you alternate who puts your two children to bed so that both you and your husband are equally involved with both children. Make sure that you arrange one-to-one trips and playtimes with your son while your husband does the same with your daughter.
Ensuring each parent has one-to-one time with each of the children is good for keeping all relationships balanced and connected.