Q: My two-year-old wants me to sit in his room until he falls asleep, before his nap and at nighttime. What can I do to change this habit?
A: When you’re feeling emotionally ready to endure the inevitable upset that happens when children practice new sleep time habits, have a little chat with your son earlier that day. Tell him that tonight’s going to be different by saying something like, “After your bath tonight, I’m going to read you a story, help you into your crib, give you a kiss and go in the living room (or whatever room is nearby). I’ll come check on you after you’re asleep.”
Talking like this will not only let your son know that tonight will be different but will reinforce the plan for you and help to release any tension you may be feeling around changing this habit.
When a parent demonstrates confidence in a plan, that confidence sends an important “You can do this/It’s going to be alright” message to the child.
That night, after you’ve finished the pre-bedtime routine, follow through with your plan: “You look sleepy. It’s time to get in your crib so you can have a lovely rest. I’ll come check on you after you’re asleep.” Slowly stand up, help your son into his crib, give him a kiss, say goodnight, walk out of the room and stand quietly outside his door.
It’s likely that your son will cry. Listen and interpret it. Is it protest crying? That’s okay. He’s letting you know he doesn’t like that you’re not following the previously-established bedtime routine. Remember, you’re working to change a habit and, just like when an adult works to change a habit, there will be feelings of discomfort and resistance as your son lets go of the old way of getting to sleep to make way for something new.
Keep on listening. If his crying starts to ramp up, wait a few beats to slow yourself down and then go into his room. Without taking him out of his crib, try to comfort him by gently putting your hand on his back or chest and speaking quietly, with confidence, not pity. “I’m sorry you’re upset. It’s time to rest now.” Pause for a few moments and then slowly go out of the room and stand by the door to listen again.
You may need to go into his room several more times, especially the first night. But when you respond to his upset like this, you’ll reassure your son that you’re out of the room but nearby and can always be counted on to come when he needs you.
It may take a few nights but your son will learn that, however much he wants you to be with him as he falls asleep, he doesn’t actually need you. (Wants and needs are very different and it’s helpful to distinguish between the two.) Typically, the second night is a bit easier and within a few nights, your son will likely be able to let go and welcome sleep on his own.
Learning to go to sleep independently is a big accomplishment that will contribute to his sense of self-confidence, so when you’re ready, go for it and stick with a plan over several nights, to give your son sufficient time to practice and learn.
Caveats: 1) Out-of-the-ordinary events like the birth of a new sibling or move to a new home or new bedroom can create discomfort in young children, so it’s best to stick to established routines and wait to create new ones until your child has adjusted to a new sibling, home or bedroom. 2) Some children, especially older toddlers, may develop sleep-time fears that may last a month or several months. When this happens, adjustments can be made to ease them through this period.