How to Help Your Child Fall Asleep and Stay Asleep
Age appropriate tips to create a restful home (even though you have children)
When I brought my first baby home, I discovered that the Living Dead do exist. These zombies are parents whose children don’t sleep. My son wanted to eat all the time, so he (and I) would be up every two hours. My daughter was difficult too. Every time I put her down, she howled like an angry coyote. Still, by the time they were toddlers, we were all sleeping through the night pretty well. Then came baby number three. He hated going to bed and woke up every time a butterfly took flight. I didn’t worry about it, though, I knew all babies eventually sleep through the night.
But, as it turns out, that is absolutely wrong. By the time he was 3, my husband and I had dubbed our son “Mr. Excuse” because he always had a reason for not sleeping. He was thirsty or hungry. It was too hot or too cold. There was a fly in his room. Or a ghost. The clock was keeping him awake. His toe hurt. “It’s just that I can’t sleep, Mom,” he told me.
Why was it so hard to get him to sleep? “Children come as sleepers or non-sleepers,” says Jodi Mindell, Ph.D., author of Sleeping Through the Night. It will be clear which one you have by toddlerhood. And if you’ve got a non-sleeper, you will find that she is exceptionally creative in finding ways not to sleep. You can get these kids to fall asleep and stay asleep. I did, and Mr. Excuse is a fantastic sleeper now.
Here’s how to handle the most common toddler sleep problems.
12 to 18 months: “Go back to sleep!”
For young toddlers, the most common sleep problem is frequent waking. For a normal toddler, this can happen sometimes as much as six times during a single night! “The question isn’t really why your child wakes during the night,” Mindell says, “but why he can’t put himself back to sleep.”
If he can’t soothe himself in the middle of the night by this age, most likely, there’s probably some part of his bedtime routine that he can’t do independently: a song, a story tape, a one hour walk in a stroller, or you sitting next to him as he drifts off to dreamland. Developmentally, this is a tricky time, since the child is old enough to figure out that the minute he closes his eyes you’ll leave, his pacifier will drop out of sight, and his music will squeak to a halt. The bottom will fall out of his world. Therefore, why would he want to fall asleep? Once the cycle of sleep deprivation begins, it is even harder for him to fall asleep.
The solution: Teach him to drift off on his own by creating new sleep associations. This way, you are not the primary object that your child needs to get to sleep.
The first thing to do is adjust or create a bedtime ritual that soothes and sets the tone for sleep. After that is in place, try these tricks.
See nighttime through your child’s eyes. What does she see if she wakes up at 2 a.m.? Is there a light on in the hallway? Make his bedroom look the same at bedtime as it will in the wee hours. If you don’t plan to be sitting in that rocking chair singing to him then, get out of there before he falls asleep.
Use necessary props. It is possible that you may need introduce props to ensure the sameness. If you have a child that wakes at the smallest noise and is unable to resettle, try using a fan or white noise to cover the other sounds.
Practice your poker face. Consistency is the key to making this work. When you do get that late-night call, create a consistent routine that involves putting her back to bed with simple reassurances. Be gentle but firm: don’t cuddle, play, or stay too long. The point of this is to make your child understand that it is sleep time and that he will get the same response from you every time.
Delay gratification. As the night goes on, stretch out the time between when he calls for you and when you actually enter the room. Wait five minutes the first and second times, ten minutes the next and so forth. Let your child have time to adjust to these changes. Toddlers have expectations about your behavior too and it is distressing when those expectations aren’t fulfilled. This may take a while, so it is important to keep in mind that the long-term goal is to get him to sleep through the night. Focus on that and it will help you be patient.
18 months to 3 years: “Just go to bed!”
As your child gets a little older, sleep problems may start earlier in the evening. Toddlers hate to go to bed in the first place. Why? They’re control freaks (“My way!”) and they have wild imaginations. At first, their delays, asking to kiss the dog good night or for you to please, please check behind the curtain, are cute. But as time wears on these excuses not to sleep are frustrating, and your child will end up sleep-deprived.
Indulge (a little) at tuck-in. Give her time to let you know her needs—the first few requests are probably legit. If your child knows that all requests must be reasonable and upfront, she will be less likely to use this time to delay sleep. It’s okay to acknowledge her fears, too; it’ll soothe, rather than encourage. Discussing these fears with your child can be the key to her get back to sleep without a fight. Give her strategies to help deal with the problem (“Well, it just so happens that monsters hate nightlights. So, if you wake up, just look at your nightlight and you will know that everything is ok.)
Stand your ground. So once you’ve said “one more,” that’s it. At first, she may be upset, but you’ll both be better off if you can stay firm. Say good night and mean it. (If she follows you out of the room, return her to bed with just another “good night.” Nothing else.)
3 to 6 years: “You still need me?”
Kids this age love attention, so often they’ll get out of bed or call you back simply because they can’t get enough of you. You can actually use this attention seeking behavior as a sleep-aid.
Stage your appearances. After saying good night, explain that you’ll be back in five minutes to give him another kiss, if he’s quiet and stays in his bed. Do the same again and again, each time staying away for a longer period. “The key is that you have to return,” says Mindell, so make sure that you are making promises that you can keep. Some kids may require shorter intervals; that’s okay. The key is to stretch out the intervals. Your child will be comforted knowing you are close eventually will not need to wait for you to come back to fall asleep.
With our youngest, we had to get a little more creative. First, we started telling him we’d forgotten to do some chore. I would leave a small light on and tell him that I would be back after I finished the job. If he was still awake when I returned, I’d kiss him again and praise him for staying in his bed. Over time, he understood that it was ok to be in his room, by himself.
Level with him. This is a surprisingly simple technique that works wonders with this age group. Let your child know that to be the best mommy that you can be, you need your (uninterrupted) sleep too. If your child then sleeps through the night without waking you, follow through (make her favorite breakfast or give lots of praise and affection the following day).
Stay calm. Another sleep problem among preschoolers is night terrors, which peak between ages 3 and 6, and affect about 5 percent of kids. These occur within two hours of falling asleep and often start with a scream. Your child may flail, breathe rapidly, sweat, or even bolt out of bed. “Night terrors are actually much worse to watch than to experience,” says Mindell, “so keep calm.” Other than making sure that your child is safe, your goal should be to do as little as possible.
No matter what your child’s age or sleep troubles, you need to be consistent and persistent. Once your child learns how to soothe herself to sleep, it is magic. It took two weeks (and lots of patience) for my little one’s sleep training to really kick in, but since then we’ve all gotten a lot more rest. As a parent, there is nothing more comforting than to be able to put your child to bed and to know that they will rest easy.