When I returned to work, my son started screaming at night

Send your parenting queries to Dr John Sharry at health@irishtimes.com


Six weeks ago I went back to work part-time, starting early in the morning (I leave at 6.45am) so I can be around in the afternoon.

The problem is with my three-year-old boy, who has begun waking several times a night and always very early in the morning (anytime from 5am onwards). He can wake up screaming and crying hysterically, and come pounding across the hall in a panic; sometimes the noise wakes his four-year-old sister, so the whole house is up! He will sometimes repeat “Mommy no go work”.

I realised that since I was leaving in what seemed like the middle of the night to him, without saying goodbye, that he was waking in a panic that I was gone. So I started going into his room to say goodbye before I left, even if that meant waking the children earlier than the preferred time of 7.30am, when my husband gets up and arranges to take them to childcare.

To address the concept of staying in bed in the early morning, we got a Gro clock, which displays a sun when it is time to get up (we have used this successfully for our daughter since before she was three). My son seems to understand the concept of the clock quite well, but it doesn’t seem to help with his early rising. I don’t think he even looks at the clock when he wakes, but simply automatically gets out of bed, crying and panicking looking for me. Saying goodbye in the morning has helped somewhat, although it is still an issue.


My main query is how to handle the many night-time episodes, I am struggling to think of appropriate and immediate consequences and/or rewards that would have some actual effect in the middle of the night.


It seems that your little boy is experiencing separation anxiety at night when he wakes, and thus runs to seek your comfort and reassurance. As you have guessed, this is probably in the context of you going back to work and him having the experience in the past of waking in the morning and not finding you where he expected. This might make him “hyper-vigilant” when he wakes in the night so he runs to check if you are there in a distressed state.

Sooth your son when he wakes

There are no immediate consequences or rewards you can apply when he is highly distressed in the night. The first step is to comfort and soothe him by whatever means work best for you. This could be taking him into your bed for a minute or by going in to him and soothing him as he lies in his bed. Then, when his anxiety is less and he is more relaxed, you can encourage him back to sleep.

There are a number of different strategies that might help, such as positively focusing him on what you want, perhaps saying something like “back to your bed now, sleepy time” in a gentle voice. If it is hard for him to initially fall sleep without you, try different strategies such as giving him nice sleep associations such as “snuggle and hold teddy now, sleepy time”.

A step-by-step plan for night waking

You can also encourage him to sleep by himself by withdrawing your attention step by step using a “when then” strategy. For example, you might say “back into bed now, when you are relaxing for a minute, then Mum will come in to tuck you in”. Then you wait and only give him the “final tuck in” once he has tried to relax by himself – “good boy, relaxing on your own”.

The key to making this work is to give him attention before he gets out of the bed again – that way he is rewarded when he tries to relax and sleep. You lengthen the time you wait until eventually he falls asleep before you go back. This strategy does require patience when employed in the middle of the night.

Address his separation anxiety

In addition, it is also important to address the underlying issues that cause your son to be anxious at night. Having a routine of saying goodbye in the morning is a good step towards doing this. This means that he is reassured that you haven’t disappeared and the ritual of saying goodbye will help him cope with his anxiety. Also, handing over his care at night to his father would be another way to do this. For example, you can reassure him that Dad is there to mind him (perhaps Dad can be there for the goodbye to reassure him).

Encouraging Dad to share in the soothing during the night waking and also in the bedtime routine each evening will all help with this. Speak in a upbeat way about him being lucky to have special “Daddy time” in the mornings and remind him that you and he will have “Mummy time” in the afternoon. Helping him settle into being cared for by both of his parents will be helpful for everyone.

Do up a picture chart to reassure him about the routine

You can help your son settle into this new routine by creating a special chart for him that you go through with him each evening, with the following possible photos or hand-drawn pictures, depending the best routine in your house.

1 Your son fast asleep in bed, cuddling with teddy, a moon on the clock

2 The clock displays the sun and it is time to get up

3 Saying goodbye to each other with a nice kiss

4 Him having a morning cuddle with Dad to reassure him

5 Having breakfast with his sister and his dad

6 Meeting you after you get home

Dr John Sharry is a social worker and psychotherapist, and is co-developer of the Parents Plus Programmes. He will deliver a talk on "Promoting Positive Self-Esteem in Children" in Dublin on Wednesday, May 10th. See solutiontalk.ie for details.