Helping Your Toddler Learn to Put Herself to Sleep
Toddlers don’t seem to have an off switch. Often, when they’re tired, they just reverberate faster, like an over-wound toy, until they crash. Dr. Laura Markham of Aha Parenting shares her valuable toddler sleep tips.
Toddlers need adequate sleep to rise to the developmental challenges that fill their lives, from controlling their temper on the playground to staying on top of their own bodily functions. Even the stress of saying goodbye to Mom and Dad when the babysitter comes can be handled more resourcefully by a rested toddler than a tired one. Your toddler doesn’t know it, but she needs her sleep.
The bad news is that some kids seem to be born “good” sleepers, and some aren’t. After all, many adults are insomniacs, and while some of them are certainly influenced by environmental factors, some of our ability to sleep easily seems to be innate. This is complicated by the fact that young humans seem designed to sleep with other humans. You may get a better night’s sleep with your toddler in another room, but your toddler instinctively feels safer in your presence.
The good news is that falling asleep is a habit, and all kids can learn it. While some kids have a harder time falling asleep than others, all children do eventually start falling asleep without a parent’s presence, and sleeping through the night most nights. It may take some time to develop that habit, but your child can learn to put himself to sleep, and to stay asleep, eventually. Here’s how:
1. Start the wind-down process early in the evening.
Toddlers who’ve been racing around the apartment can’t simply switch gears and decompress when you decide it’s bedtime. The last few hours before bed should be calm and quiet.
2. Follow the same evening routine every night, if possible.
Your goal is a sense of calm, safe, inevitability. Dinner, then a bath, then stories, then kissing and tucking in all the stuffed animals who share the toddler’s bed, then prayers or blessings, then lights out while you sing to your little one, is an example of a common and effective routine. Beware of too elaborate a routine, because they have a way of expanding to take more time. But don’t think of bedtime as a chore that’s taking too much time. Think of it as the best part of the day, when you get premium quality time with your little one.
Toddlers who are showing oppositional behavior may resist moving along with the bedtime routine. The best way to sidestep this is to have the clock, rather than you, be the bad guy. Create a chart with photos of your child doing all the steps of the bedtime routine, with a clock time next to the photo. Then point to the photos as you go through the routine every night. Over time your kid will begin to move herself through the routine.
Even better, with a routine your child sees you as her advocate.
“Look, it’s 7:15! If we can get out of the tub now and brush your teeth, we’ll have time for an extra story before lights out at 7:30!”
That way, you’re on his side, and he doesn’t need to rebel against you. He also begins to learn about responsibility and making smart choices. And, of course, allow plenty of time. It won’t exactly settle your child down if you get impatient or angry.
3. Help your toddler set his “biological clock.”
Toddlers need a set time to go to bed every night, so their body begins to expect sleep. Most toddlers do better with an early bedtime; between 6:30 and 7:30 pm. You’d think a later bedtime would help them fall asleep more easily, but when they stay up later, they get over-tired, and stress hormones like adrenalin and cortisol kick in to keep them going. Then they actually have a harder time falling asleep, wake up more during the night, and often wake early in the morning. So keep moving bedtime earlier until you find that magic moment before your little wind up toy starts getting wound up. (Of course, toddlers who nap later may need a later bedtime.)
Dim lights in the hour before bedtime, as well as slow, calm routines, help kids’ bodies know that it’s time to sleep. If you can take him up to his bath at 6:00, be in bed at 6:30 for stories, and turn the lights out at 7:00pm, he’s much more likely to fall asleep than if you put him into pajamas at 7:25 and snap the lights off.
The key is to watch for those yawns that signal he’s getting sleepy. If he kicks into “overdrive” mode, his body will be pumping out adrenaline, and getting him into bed will be much harder.
4. Set up a cozy bed.
All children go through normal sleep cycles in which they wake just slightly and then settle into deep sleep again. Your goal is to ensure that discomfort doesn’t wake your child during those periods of slight waking. Even though he can sleep soundly through the noise from the TV while he’s in a deep sleep, it will wake him when he gets to a more shallow part of the sleep cycle. So consider a “white noise” machine.
Darkness matters, too. Room-darkening shades or blackout curtains can be invaluable, especially in the summer months when your toddler will be going to sleep while it’s still light out.
Warmth matters — if your toddler kicks his covers off, make sure he sleeps in warm pjs with feet.
And of course, once he’s out of diapers, be sure he uses the bathroom last thing.
5. Many toddlers need a bedtime snack to hold them through the night…
…especially during growth spurts. Warm milk, a slice of turkey, a piece of toast, something calming and predictable, not too interesting, and without sugar, works best. If they can eat it at a snack table in their room while you read a bedtime story, before brushing teeth, you can move efficiently through the bedtime routine. If she still nurses to sleep or falls asleep with a bottle, you’ll want to break that association, so that when your child wakes in the night she can put herself back to sleep. She can still nurse or have her bottle, but then should brush her teeth and fall asleep without food in her mouth.
6. Don’t give up naps too early.
Although every child has individual sleep needs, most kids are not ready to give up naps until age 3. Going napless before that just makes them cranky and adrenalized, making bedtime much more challenging.
7. Make sure they get enough fresh air, sunshine and exercise during the day.
Your grandmother was right: kids really do sleep more soundly when they get more outdoor play. Just not in the hour before bedtime, which re-energizes them! Laughter is also essential, because it transforms the body chemistry to reduce the stress hormones. Play a roughhousing game to get them laughing before dinner — be a bucking bronco, or chase them around the house. Often, kids who have a hard time settling at bedtime have a “full emotional backpack” and more laughter earlier on will help them fall asleep and stay asleep. If laughter isn’t enough, your child will show you, with oppositional behavior, that he needs more help to empty all that stress. In that case, he probably needs to cry before he can settle down to sleep.
8. Decide for or against the family bed for your family.
Most toddlers fall asleep easily if you lie down with them, and many parents do this. Other parents resist, because they too often fall asleep themselves, and lose their evenings. This is an individual call, and there is no shame in waiting till your child is a little older before expecting her to put herself to sleep — it does get easier for kids as they get older. Many parents who are apart from their children during the day treasure this time with their kids, and love being able to go to sleep early, then get up early and rested. One downside of this habit is that if the child is not in your bed, you will need to move, which wakes you up. The other downside is that when he awakens slightly in the middle of the night during normal sleep cycles, he may well miss your presence and come looking for you. If you aren’t willing to let him crawl into your bed at that point, this may not be a sustainable routine for your family.
9. If you aren’t using the Family Bed, consciously teach your child to put herself to sleep.
Your goal, of course, is to help your child sleep through the night. Kids in the family bed often do this automatically since they’re reassured by their parents’ presence, and since sleeping with the mother is certainly a natural state biologically for toddlers. If you don’t want a family bed, your goal is for your toddler to put himself back to sleep when he does wake slightly at night. For most babies and toddlers, that means helping him learn to fall asleep himself, so he won’t miss you during those slight night wakings, but can roll over and go right back into deep sleep.
10. Teach new sleep habits.
If you’ve been helping your child fall asleep with nursing or rocking, then when he wakes slightly during normal sleep cycles, he is likely to look for you, because he needs to be nursed or rocked again to fall back asleep. Unless you want to rock or nurse him to sleep over and over at night, your goal now is to help him fall asleep in his own crib or bed at night. That means putting him into bed when he’s awake, so that he can get used to falling asleep there himself. Breaking his established sleep habit can be challenging — it’s hard for him to understand why you won’t nurse or rock him now. You can expect him to need your close physical proximity to settle down to sleep.
If your toddler is still nursing, just avoid letting him nurse to sleep. In fact, you may want to break the association with sleep completely by nursing him in the living room before beginning the bedtime routine. Since nursing is a harder habit to break than rocking, you may want to use a two step process. First, get your child used to falling asleep without nursing, even if you have to rock him. Then, wean him off the rocking.
11. Explain to your child what’s going to happen.
Act out a little skit with stuffed animals that show a little one resisting bedtime. Just act out what will happen, using stuffed animals. The mom or dad says “Time for bed.” The baby asks to be rocked. The mom says no, we are just going to hold you, in your bed. The baby cries, but the mom holds her and she settles down and sleeps. The parent is very comforting
“You like to be rocked, but you can learn to settle down and sleep without rocking….we need to be in the bed…I am right here with you…you can cry as much as you want…I will hold you…You can learn this.”
The parents stay calm and loving and insist that it’s time for sleeping. Your child will identify with the little one and will see that the little one eventually lies down in the crib or bed and goes to sleep. You can make it as funny as you want, and the child as resistant as you want but make sure the parents always reassure the child that they are there, and the ending is always that the little one happily goes to sleep. Use little mantras that you can repeat at night, like
“When it’s dark, we sleep….When it’s light, Mommy and Daddy come to get you!”
12. Start slow.
Begin (after your bedtime routine) by holding your child until he falls asleep — not lying down, which puts you in danger of falling asleep. Use the time to meditate, if you can, or listen to music.
Once he’s used to falling asleep this way, the next phase is to touch, but not hold, your child. Eventually, he will be able to fall asleep with you simply holding his hand, or putting your hand on his forehead. (It often helps to give kids a large stuffed animal or pillow to hold at this point, to substitute for your holding them. Kids often love to curl around a large, cuddly animal.)
When he can fall asleep being touched but not held, begin to sit next to your child while he falls asleep, without actually touching him. In the beginning, you will probably need to sit close enough to him that he can touch you briefly if he wants to reach out.
Finally, begin sitting further and further away, until you are outside the bedroom door. You may be able to read with a flashlight; you can certainly listen to music. If your child tries to sit up in bed, just remind him in a monotone that it’s “Bedtime, sleeptime, lie down now please.” Another variation on this process is to move quietly around the room, straightening up or folding laundry, while your toddler falls asleep. This provides a sense of security, without him depending on your physical proximity. Then you can leave the room for longer and longer periods, beginning by sitting right outside his door with a good book.
You will probably find that some days he backslides and needs you to touch him again. That’s ok, it won’t sabotage your overall momentum, as long as the next day you’re back to your program.
13. What if he cries?
Your little one is learning new sleep habits, and that’s hard for him. He may well cry, and beg, for you to do things the old way. He’s showing you all his fear of being without you. After all, for him bedtime is like being sent to Siberia, and it’s reasonable for him to be afraid. Your job is to listen and acknowledge:
“I hear that you’re worried…I will be very close by…I will always come if you call….I know you can fall asleep without me.”
When young children get a chance to cry in our loving presence, they experience those fears they’ve been fending off, and they are able to fall asleep more easily. This is not the same as leaving a child to “cry it out” which leaves him alone with his fears. Staying with the child gives him the backup he needs to face his worries, and feel them, which makes them dissipate.
What if he gets hysterical? Hold him. Crying is fine, as long as you’re there. Don’t move away from him any faster than he can handle, meaning crying is fine but hysteria isn’t conducive to sleep. If you feel your child is too upset, there is nothing wrong with trying again when he’s older, or simply making your teaching more gradual.
For instance, if your child is used to falling asleep by being rocked, you could start by putting him in the bed and explaining that now we will start falling asleep in the bed. But it would be gentler (and I would always go with gentler) to rock him almost to sleep in the chair, then stand and rock him in your arms, then hold him still in your arms until he is almost asleep and accepts the stillness, then lower him into the crib or bed still awake although almost asleep. When he protests, pick him up again in the rocking position and rock a little, then stop. Keep repeating this. It may take 25 attempts, but eventually he will let you put him in the bed without protest.
Too labor intensive? Once your child is verbal, and you’ve acted out the new plan with stuffed animals, you can move faster. But honestly, it’s self-defeating to move too fast. Your goal is to avoid trauma, which is best done by moving very slowly through this learning process. Think of this as you would learning any other new skill (talking, using the potty, reading). It happens over time, not all at once.
Will he be traumatized by crying? Remember that my recommendation is to teach your child as gradually as possible. While your child is learning to put himself to sleep, a parent is in the room, rocking or holding him, then reassuring him and touching him. If your child is crying, you are in physical and verbal contact with him, comforting him. Saying no to your child is fine, even if he cries, as long as you are present and reassuring him. Even though you are actively “teaching” your child to put himself to sleep, this is not “Ferberizing” which requires the parent to leave the room.
Remember also that the first few nights are the hardest. If your little one is used to you rocking her to sleep, and now you say you can’t do that but you will hold her while she falls asleep in her crib, she is likely to protest with vigor. After all, she doesn’t know how to go to sleep without rocking. But if you act out the new routine with stuffed animals, and then stay by her bed and keep reassuring her and holding her, eventually she will lie down and sleep. The first night it could well take an hour. Within a week, don’t be surprised if she lies right down to sleep as soon as you put her down.
14. Night Wakings…
…usually diminish as kids learn to put themselves to sleep, because when they wake slightly at night they aren’t looking around for mom or dad. While your child is still needing you to fall asleep, however, she will probably keep waking up at night. For that interim period, many parents find it easier to just let their toddler climb in bed with them, particularly because she hasn’t yet learned to fall asleep without being held and thus could wake repeatedly at night. Once she is falling asleep without your touching her, however, you will find that she is usually able to put herself back to sleep at night without even waking you. If she does wake and need you in the night, you can minimize her repeating that behavior by returning her to her own bed, and repeating your bedtime practice of sitting near her (some parents lie down on the rug with a blanket) while she falls asleep.
Special note for moms who are nursing toddlers: It’s fine to nurse your toddler at night if you’re up for it. However, many toddlers who nurse at night wake up all night asking for milk. So it is also fine to night-wean your toddler, and it should not impact your nursing relationship if you make sure that your little one has plenty of cozy nursing opportunities during waking hours.
If you do decide to break the night nursing habit, it helps a lot to send Dad in when your little one wakes at night. If you make this an inviolate practice, and even tell your child during the day that only Daddy can come in at night because Mommy and the nursies are sleeping, she will gradually — although not without protest — accept that as the way of the world. As long as Dad is there to comfort her, protesting mom’s absence won’t traumatize her. He’s her parent, too.
15. Acknowledge your child’s courage and loss.
Tell him how proud you are when he makes progress in learning to sleep by himself. He needs some motivation to do what is, after all, a hard thing for most toddlers. When you do your little skits with the stuffed animals, be sure to have the animal parents be proud of the child. Any other motivation you can give him will also be valuable; some kids respond to little prizes in the morning, and if he shows any interest in eventually having sleepovers, for instance, you can point out his progress toward them. And remember to provide plenty of physical closeness and snuggles during the day, to make up for his independence at night.
This gradual program provides a sense of security while at the same time teaching your toddler to feel comfortable falling asleep without your physical proximity. Eventually, you’ll find that your toddler is asleep almost as soon as his head settles on the pillow – and you’ll be amazed to find that you actually have an evening!
Published with permission from Aha! Parenting by Dr. Laura Markham.
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