One of the top issues I am asked to help with from parents of toddlers and preschoolers is “how do I get them to go to sleep independently?”.
The goal is to tuck the child in, read them a story, give them a goodnight kiss and leave the bedroom shortly after, with the child still awake. Watch any film, soap or drama on TV and any bedtime will look exactly like this. The child sweetly replies with their “goodnight”, yawns, turns their head over on the pillow, eyes close and not a peep is heard from them until the next morning.
This goal is sadly unrealistic, for almost any age. Even as adults we struggle to fall asleep in such a peaceful and easy way. In fact, just over fifty percent of us struggle to do the very thing we aim for our children to do. In terms of when children may be happy with an independent bedtime, I usually suggest somewhere between four and seven years of age. Of course there will always be a baby who puts themselves to sleep from the off and twelve year olds who still need to be cuddled to sleep each night though.
The starting point for achieving “goodnight and go” however should always be in assessing your expectations and whether they are age appropriate. Once you are sure that what you’re hoping for is realistic, then your next step is to look at things that may be inhibiting your goal from being achieved. Let’s look at these in turn:
Sleep Onset Inhibitors
- Wrong Bedtime
Choosing the correct bedtime is crucial when working towards independence. Too early and the child will resist sleep (as would you if you weren’t tired and somebody was trying to make you sleep!) as their bodies are not chemically ready. Too late and the child becomes overstimulated, their bodies fill with cortisol as an emergency measure to keep them awake, and they find it hard to switch off.
Letting your child pick their own bedtime can be a recipe for disaster, this article explains why I would always recommend against it.
For the age range in question the bedtime should ideally be around 8-8:30pm, this is not the time that your routine starts, but the point where you are tucking them up in bed.
2. Poor Bedtime Routine
If your bedtime routine for your child is lax you may well suffer when it comes to sleep onset. Simply you can either spend the time running a great bedtime routine, or you can spend the time trying to get your child to sleep in bed. Either way it’s time you have to spend.
The bedtime routine should begin around an hour before you hope for your child to be asleep. This time is all about winding down, setting cues and preparing for sleep. It is so important to keep play out of the bedtime routine, no running around chasing, no playing with toys. These give the wrong message.
See more on bedtime routines in my video here:
3. Screen Time
This is one of the top causes of adult sleep onset insomnia and plays a large negative role in issues with children too. Your child needs at least an hour, preferably two, clear of screens before bedtime. No bedtime shows on TV, no watching videos on a tablet and no apps on a phone for toothbrushing or sleeptime either.
Lighting at bedtime can cause problems for two reasons. First it can inhibit the onset of sleep and second, if a child is scared of the dark, a lack of it can also inhibit the onset of sleep. I would always recommend the use of a nightlight, but only a red one, for more on lighting see this article.
5. Lack of Reconnection Time
This is such an important point and one that is missed by so many. Children need to reconnect with their parents, particularly the mother, and if this need isn’t fulfilled they will try to postpone bedtime as much as possible to reconnect. The most common problem here is if the mother works outside of the home, but also siblings can impact too.
The best way to reconnect is in advance of bedtime. Ideally spend an hour focussed on the child, reading and playing with them before the bedtime routine starts. e.g if the routine for bedtime starts at 7:30, then spend 6:30-7:30 playing together.
Once again this is time you’re going to have to spend anyway, either reconnecting or dealing with your child’s resistance to go to sleep!
6. Lack of Boundaries
Boundaries are really important at bedtime. Once your child is in their bedroom there is no more playing, no more running, no more toys and no more stories once you have finished reading their bedtime story. There is no more food, no more drink, or any other excuse your child may have. This may sound harsh, but actually setting boundaries here and consistently reinforcing them is not only kind to you, but kind to your child too. They know what to expect and you are helping them to get the sleep that they need. It’s OK to say “no, it’s time to sleep now”, it’s OK for them to cry and it’s OK for you to comfort them when they cry. What isn’t OK is shouting at them, getting angry or leaving them alone with their tears. Bedtime boundaries are usually tough going when you first enforce them, you can expect a good two weeks of returning to bed, taking toys away and more. On the first few nights of using them bedtime may take two, or even three hours. Expect this, it is normal and it will pass.
Three Steps to Independent Sleep Onset
Only once you have removed the bedtime inhibitors can you move on to creating an independent bedtime. Here there are three steps to achieve this. Let’s look at them in turn.
- A Bedtime Friend to Care For
Have you ever noticed that if you’re scared of something but caring for another that your fear lessens? This is the case with me and flying. I am a horrible flyer, I hate it and am terrified every time I fly. The only thing that calms my nerves is taking care of my children. The more scared they are, the calmer they get as I focus on them. In calming them I also calm myself in such a way that I could never do to myself alone.
Using this transference really helps children at bedtime. Take them on a special shopping trip to buy a ‘bedtime buddy’, allow them free choice and if possible go to a Build A Bear or similar. This is because they can have more input in making the bear and also because you can kiss the ‘wishing heart’ that is inserted and tell your child “I’ve put some of my love in the heart so that it will always be with you when you have the bear”. Encourage your child to name the bear.
When you return home, tell your child “Bob might be a bit scared and a bit lonely tonight, because all his friends and family are in the shop still. Do you think you could look after him?” then say “If he wakes and he’s scared or lonely, can you give him a big squeeze and tell him that it’s OK to go back to sleep?”. Remind your child of this again as you tuck them into bed with the bear. The hope is that they will comfort the bear if they themselves are feeling anxious or lonely.
2. Pop In and Pop Out
One of the keys to surviving separation anxiety, for both parents and children, is to separate in small, well timed doses. Using this concept at bedtime can be really helpful. Once your child is tucked up in bed and their bedtime routine is complete say “Oh, I need to go to the toilet, I’ll be back in a minute”. Leave their room and stay out for as long as they don’t cry or call for you. If they cry or call for you go straight back to their room and say “it’s OK I’m here, don’t worry, I’m always here if you need me”. Once they are calm say “oh no, I didn’t turn off the tap, back in a minute” and repeat.
Initially your ‘pop outs’ may only be a minute or two long. Your aim initially is not for the child to go to sleep while you are out of the room, but just to be comfortable in your absence. Ultimately they may fall asleep while you are out, but don’t expect that to happen for at least the first few weeks.
3. Guided Relaxation
My ultimate tip for encouraging independent sleep is to use guided relaxation recordings. These work to take the child’s mind off of ‘going to sleep’, help them to relax and feel calm in your absence ultimately.
When choosing a recording, you want to aim for one that isn’t exhilarating in anyway (no flying, or chasing things) and ideally one that teaches them new coping strategies for sleep, so that the effect builds the more times that they listen to the recording. My own ‘Gentle Sleep Relaxation for Children’ is exactly this. Calm spoken word over alpha music (music that is written to help relax the brain). You can find it on iTunes, Amazon.com and Amazon.co.uk as a download in almost all countries, or Amazon.co.uk, or Amazon.com as a CD.
Start the CD once you have tucked your child in and said your goodnights and for the first week or so lay with them until they are asleep, then you can try to leave just before you put the recording on, or part way into it.
Hopefully with all of these tips, combined with age appropriate expectations, you can look forward to kissing your children goodnight and leaving them to drift off to sleep independently, but most importantly happily, for many years to come.