Try these strategies that will help you and your child get a good night of sleep.
The one parenting dilemma I get asked about the most is: “How do I get my child to sleep in his bed?” In this article I’ll outline positive ways to encourage your children to be successful sleepers. But first consider what you want. Some parents are happy to co-sleep with their child. If it works for you, and it aligns with how you choose to parent, then go for it. This article is not meant to teach you what’s right or wrong. I’m simply addressing the concerns of parents who would rather not co-sleep.
Personally, I always preferred that my kids sleep in their own beds because everyone slept better — parents included. I went back to work part time when my son was 4 months and quality sleep was paramount. The reason kids wind up sleeping with us is because somewhere along the way we made an accommodation when they were sick, or scared, etc. That’s okay!
We should tend to our kids when they’re afraid or not feeling well. But you want to have a plan in place so you can help them feel comfortable when they go back to sleeping on their own. This can be challenging because your exhaustion coupled with feeling bad for your kiddo makes this an uphill battle.
My sleep plan offers a framework that you can customize based on your family’s needs. It’s important to note this: The longer your child has slept with you, the longer it will take to teach him or her to sleep independently. For instance, if your 5-year-old has always slept with you, breaking this pattern is going to take more time. This is not to discourage you, but it’s important you know what to expect so you can stay the course.
Try this three-step plan:
1. Create a space they are excited to sleep in
If this is feasible, allow them to create a room they’ll feel excited about sleeping in. This could include bedding they like, decorations, maybe glow in the dark stickers. Do this before the first night so they can be part of the process.
2. Set reasonable expectations
Some parents go into this fully committed. Sticker charts are ready, rewards have been discussed and everyone is excited to get a good night of sleep. The problem is your expectations might not be realistic. Setting expectations that are too high sets us up to fail. What starts as great enthusiasm will end in quick defeat.
Break up your end goal — your child sleeping in their bed all night — into smaller goals. Taking an incremental approach to your long-term goal allows you to celebrate the small wins.
Nights 1 and 2: The expectation for the first two nights is they just fall asleep in their bed independently. The idea is to slowly retrain them to feel comfortable sleeping on their own.
Nights 3-5: After falling asleep in their bed, assuming they’re successful, increase the duration of time they stay in their bed on nights 3 and 4.
If they come and wake you up, it’s imperative that you go back to their room. Do not put them back in your bed.
Nights 6-7: Increase the duration of time so by night 7 they are sleeping the entire night in their bed.
3. Give positive feedback with each small win
Each time they meet an expectation, you want to positively reinforce them. For example, after the first night, if they fell asleep in their bed independently, you want to reward them the next morning. You could do a sticker chart so after X number of stickers they get a big reward, prize or a favorite activity. Whatever you choose it has to motivate them. Choosing the right reinforcement is key! Some kids don’t care about stickers, so don’t use them. Other children may not want a toy, so maybe you promise 10 extra minutes at the park. Whatever the reinforcement is, your child should know ahead of time so he can feel motivated in a healthy way.
I get asked this all the time: Do you have to constantly reward them? No. As your child becomes comfortable sleeping independently you will fade the reinforcement, in which case they will no longer need it. Reinforcement is necessary in the beginning because you’ll need to motivate them to learn a new behavior. Once they become accustomed to it and it’s no longer new, the reinforcement gets phased out.
Some parents I talk to don’t like the idea of giving prizes or stickers. They see it as extrinsic motivation — simply put, they’re doing it for an external reason. They would rather have their child feel motivated by reasons that are intrinsic, meaning they’re not doing it for a reward but because it’s good for them. You can approach it this way. But for younger children, the idea of intrinsic motivation is abstract and can be difficult to grasp. It’s really important that children understand healthy motivation which includes both intrinsic and extrinsic motivation.
If you decide you don’t want to reward them with an item, your reinforcement could look like this: “Wow, you did such a great job sleeping in your bed last night — you’re taking really good care of your mind and body! When you sleep all night in your bed, you’ll be able to have more energy for fun things like going to the park or playing with your friends!”
What to Do When Your Child is Scared
Tip 1: Leave nightlights or a lamp on.
I’ll often hear parents say, “I don’t want to teach them to sleep with a light on because they’ll get used to it.” If keeping the lamp on allows them to sleep independently, it’s worth it!! Remember, we don’t want to parent from a rigid place — always fearful that your child will develop bad habits. Adjustments and flexibility will always be required of us to tune in to our kiddos’ unique needs.
Tip 2: Do a house check together.
Before bedtime walk through the house and check everything together. Make it fun: Use flashlights and look in closets and under beds. Kids will enjoy this process, and it gives them additional comfort. Let them keep a flashlight nearby while they sleep just in case they need it in the middle of the night.
Using these tips, you should be able to get your child to sleep independently in a week. Again, bear in mind if he’s been sleeping with you for a very long time, this will take longer. When I work with parents, we usually come up with a specific plan that’s unique to each kiddo.
Positive Sleep Plan: Key Points
Lay out a plan and increase the expectations in an incremental way.
Start off small, so he can feel successful and motivated to continue. If your expectation is too high, it will backfire.
Consistency is key. You will need to constantly reassure him while remaining calm. Choose a week when you will have the extra energy to exert.
Avoid putting them in back in your bed. This may be exhausting, but you will need to go back in his room with him.
Validate how he’s feeling. This will help him stay calm. The calmer your child is, the more receptive he will be to the new plan.
Don’t come from an authoritative place. This will put your child on the defense, and he will fight the new plan. Collaborate and highlight the importance of quality sleep.
You want to be working toward something bigger so when he achieves the full night of sleep, he earns something highly desirable.
Do not be afraid to positively reinforce with something that motivates him. Pair this motivation with reasons why independent sleep is so important.
Quality sleep will drastically improve the daily lives for both you and your child. Stay the course. While this may be challenging, the end result will be well worth it!! Nothing provides a better ripple effect throughout your day than good sleep.