In our last issue we discussed the fact that 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.

It might not feel like it now, but the good news is that falling asleep is a habit, and all kids can learn it. Just as a recap, here are the first eight points we covered in the last article:

  • Start the wind-down process early in the evening
  • Follow the same evening routine every night, if possible.
  • Help your toddler set her biological clock
  • Set up a cosy bed
  • Consider a bedtime snack
  • Don’t give up naps too early
  • Fresh air, sunshine and exercise are vital
  • Decide for or against the family bed

Our final seven pointers will help you to teach your child how to do something adults have mostly learned to do – to fall asleep by themselves, and then to fall back asleep if they wake up.

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 sleeping with their 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 herself back to sleep when she does wake slightly at night. For most babies and toddlers, that means helping her learn to fall asleep herself, so she won’t miss you during those slight night wakings, but can roll over and go right back into deep sleep.

Teach new sleep habits

If you’ve been helping your child fall asleep with feeding or rocking, then when she wakes slightly during normal sleep cycles, she is likely to look for you, because she needs to be fed or rocked again to fall back asleep. Unless you want to rock or feed her to sleep over and over at night, your goal now is to help her fall asleep in her own cot or bed at night.

That means putting her into bed when she’s awake, so that she can get used to falling asleep there herself. Breaking her established sleep habit can be challenging – it’s hard for her to understand why you won’t feed or rock her now.

If your toddler is still breastfeeding, just avoid letting her feed to sleep. In fact, you may want to break the association with sleep completely by breastfeeding her while in the living room before beginning the normal bedtime routine. Since breastfeeding 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 breastfeeding, even if you have to rock her. Then, wean her off the rocking.

Explain to your child what’s going to happen

Act out a little skit with stuffed animals that shows a little one resisting bedtime. 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.

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 cot or bed and 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!”

Start slowly

Begin (after your bedtime routine) by holding your child until she 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 she’s used to falling asleep this way, the next phase is to touch, but not hold, your child. Eventually, she will be able to fall asleep with you simply holding her hand, or putting your hand on her forehead.

When she can fall asleep being touched but not held, begin to sit next to your child while she falls asleep, without actually touching her. In the beginning, you will probably need to sit close enough to her that she can touch you briefly if she wants to reach out.

Finally, begin sitting further and further away, until you are outside the bedroom door. If your child tries to sit up in bed, just remind her in a monotone that it’s “bedtime, sleep time, lie down now, please.”

You will probably find that some days she backslides and needs you to touch her again. That’s okay: it won’t sabotage your overall momentum, as long as the next day you’re back to your programme

What if she cries?

Your little one is learning new sleep habits, and that’s hard for her. She may well cry, and beg, for you to do things the old way. She’s showing you all her fear of being without you. After all, for her bedtime is like being sent to Siberia, and it’s reasonable for her 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 her alone with her fears. Staying with the child gives her the back-up she needs to face her worries, and feel them, which makes them dissipate.

What if she gets hysterical? Then you can hold her. Crying is fine, as long as you’re there. Don’t move away from her any faster than she 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 she’s older, or simply making your teaching more gradual.

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 cot, she is likely to protest with vigour. 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.

Night wakings

These 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 still needs 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.

If she does wake and need you in the night, you can minimise her repeating that behaviour by returning her to her own bed, and repeating your bedtime practice of sitting near her while she falls asleep.

Special note for moms who are breastfeeding toddlers: it’s fine to feed your toddler at night if you’re up for it. But it’s also fine to night-wean your toddler, and it should not impact your breastfeeding relationship if you make sure that your little one has plenty of cosy breastfeeding opportunities during waking hours.

If you do decide to break the night feeding 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 is sleeping, she will gradually – although not without protest – accept that as the way of the world.

Acknowledge your child’s courage and loss

Tell her how proud you are when she makes progress in learning to sleep by herself. She 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 her will also be valuable; some kids respond to little prizes in the morning, and if she shows any interest in eventually having sleepovers, for instance, you can point out her progress toward them. And remember to provide plenty of physical closeness and snuggles during the day, to make up for her independence at night.

This gradual programme 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 her head settles on the pillow – and you’ll be amazed to find that you actually have an evening!

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