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How to Help Your Child Sleep Alone

It is important for children to learn how to fall asleep on their own.

Do you find yourself all twisted up from sleeping on the floor of your child's room every night, or from being kicked in the ribs by a toddler turning your bed into a roller derby? If you would like to get your child to sleep alone in his bed, I have a plan for you.

It’s important to know that everyone forms associations to falling asleep. As an adult, we may need our favorite pillow and blanket and to follow a routine such as reading a book, and then lights out. Kids often get used to falling asleep only if they have their parent nearby. (This can happen in early infancy or suddenly appear after a family vacation.) This association makes a child balk when a parent tries to absent himself. Rather than face a tirade, a tired parent can easily end up lying prone on the floor, or taking a child into bed.

In actuality, a child does not need a parent at night. The child needs rest. And sleeping alone is best for everyone. Furthermore, learning to fall asleep on her own, is an important skill for a child to achieve. It helps the child to feel she can be alone and be safe. (After all she knows her parents are in the next room.) You can help your child to adjust to falling asleep alone in a gentle, supportive way. Here are six steps to a better night’s sleep for the family.

Examine your own feelings. Parents can easily feel conflicted about making the separation. You may enjoy this special closeness sleeping with your child, or unconsciously feel that it helps make up for limited time during the day. It is better to arrange for special times together such as having your child help you prepare dinner or planning a special “date” on the weekend. If you convey any ambivalence about changing the sleep routine, your child will pick up the vibes and help you keep the status quo. The more committed you are, the more likely you will have success.

Explain to your child about the change. You want him to understand your reasoning, so he will not feel abandoned and will be more co-operative. You might tell your child, for instance, “It's important for children to learn to fall asleep on their own in their beds. That’s the way children get the best rest, and it helps them grow up healthy and strong. Mommy and Daddy can rest better that way, too. It’s Mommy and Daddy’s job to keep you healthy, so we are going to help you to do this."

Go through your normal evening routine. A routine is crucial for children because they associate going to sleep with activities such as reading books or talking about the day and are more ready to let you go when it is time for, “lights out.

Move to a chair. If you usually sit on the bed or lie down next to her, sit next to the bed in a chair. If she protests tell her, “Mommy is more comfortable this way”, and begin to read a book. Reassure her in a gentle, yet firm way that it will be fine.

Each night slowly move the chair farther and farther away from the bed. From time to time, add taking bathroom breaks, so your child starts to get used to short absences, and he might even fall asleep by the time you return. After some time, place your chair outside the door. Tell him, “I'm here” and if he gets out of bed repeat firmly, “Back to bed.” Slowly, move out of her sight near the door, so he will be less focused on you and you can still monitor if he gets up.

Keep adding breaks until you can tell her, "I'm going to the kitchen to wash the dishes, then I'll come back and tuck you in. (You can add your own spin to this as you go along.) Set aside at least a week or two to work on this, so you will feel less pressured. Do not despair if it takes longer. You will need to give this as much time as it needs. This is a hard habit to break, but with patience, firmness and support this approach should do the trick.

More from Meri Wallace LCSW
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