Teaching Toddlers How to Sleep Alone

Get your toddler to sleep without you, and take back your bed!

Toddler can't sleep

Verywell / Bailey Mariner

Sleep is important to make life easier for the whole family. Not getting enough sleep can lead to a host of other issues with toddlers, such as tantrums, meltdowns, crankiness, and a disagreeable demeanor. When it comes to establishing good sleep habits with your toddler, the earlier you start, the better.

Some parents don't realize that the habits they allow or even encourage can lead to sleep problems. Once these habits have developed, it can be difficult to make changes. But it's not impossible, and is certainly worth the effort. It will be easier for the child and the parents if ground rules and routines around sleep are set sooner to avoid problems later.

Toddler Sleep Associations

A sleep association is anything that a toddler or child connects with going to sleep. It can be an object, like a pacifier, blanket, or stuffed animal. Or it can be an action, such as rocking, nursing, or sleeping next to a parent. Children start establishing sleep associations very early in life. If a toddler is used to falling asleep while nursing or taking a bottle, or being rocked to sleep, they will make that association every time it is bedtime.

Some sleep associations are healthy and critical to setting up a bedtime routine so that your child's mind and body are ready for sleep. Parents might give their toddler a warm bath, brush teeth, read a story together, turn the lights low, sing songs, or do anything that helps indicate that bedtime is approaching.

Other sleep associations can create issues. If a toddler has to have a bottle of milk to fall asleep, it may seem fine at first. But later, it becomes unhealthy due to promoting cavities or being a source of extra calories that your toddler doesn't really need.

Or, sleeping in your child’s room may have seemed like your only option for getting your child to bed, but that probably means you’re not getting a good night’s sleep. Consider whether a sleep association is adversely affecting your child's sleep, your own sleep, or that of another family member or caregiver.

Problems With Bed-Sharing

Bed-sharing (also known as the family bed) is a hotly debated issue that may straddle the line between healthy and unhealthy sleep habits and associations. Some parenting experts say that, when done right, sharing a bed with your baby is perfectly safe and healthy.

But others, including the American Academy of Pediatrics recommend "room-sharing" instead of bed-sharing as a safer option to be close to the baby but prevent the risk of accidentally falling asleep on the baby, or the baby being covered by sheets and blankets.

However, even if you’re bed-sharing in a safe environment, it may not be the best choice for everyone involved. You or your partner may find your sleep habits disrupted by your child so you don't get enough sleep. The child may also suffer.

Bed-sharing effectively places a child on an adult sleep/wake schedule. By going to bed later and waking up at the same as you, your child will inevitably be deprived of the 13 hours of sleep per night that many toddlers need.

Toddlers who are not getting enough sleep at night may compensate for the loss by falling asleep in the car, at meals, or wherever there is an opportunity for a nap. While it may seem handy to have your toddler sleeping a lot during the day, this napping schedule may be disruptive to other family activities.

Fixing Negative Sleep Associations

Fixing a toddler’s sleep problem is not easy, but it's not impossible. Once solved, everyone in the family will be better rested. Before you begin, make sure all of the caregivers in the home are on the same page about your child’s sleep situation.

You will then need to alter your perception of who is in charge. Parents of toddlers often get stuck in this trap, especially if a parent suddenly "gives in" to a child's tantrums or persistent misbehaviors.

While it may seem impossible to control toddlers sometimes, it is the parent's job to set and maintain boundaries around sleep routines and schedules. Parents do children a disservice when they allow them to do what they want just because they're louder, cry, or are stubborn. To fix negative sleep associations:

  • Allow your toddler to choose a book, pajamas, and a stuffed animal as part of the routine.
  • Keep the lights low and voices quiet as you approach bedtime.
  • Make a plan and implement it consistently.
  • Set up a bedtime routine that will eventually become a habit.

Allowing children to make choices at bedtime, including what to wear and what rituals to follow, helps them feel as if they are more in control of the situation.

Getting a Child to Sleep Alone

If a toddler is struggling to sleep on their own, tell them that they need to stay in their bed and sleep. Be firm. Once you set the expectation, it's time to say goodnight and leave the room. There are some tips that may help.

Communicate Effectively

If a toddler seems insecure or cries as you are leaving, verbally reassure them that you're just down the hall but that they need to stay in bed. If your toddler gets out of bed, then you must take them and physically put them back in bed. Do this without talking, arguing, or making a big production out of it.

Your toddler will hear your tone rather than your words, so avoid raising the pitch of your voice or speaking faster. Keep the tone reassuring, and try to avoid tension in your face or posture.

You might be able to put them back into bed and exit the room and they will get the point that it's time for sleeping and you mean business. However, a toddler is likely to test you. Keep taking them back, over and over again, until they stay. 

Remain Calm but Persistent

If your toddler follows you out of the room immediately instead of waiting until you've left to get out of bed, try sitting on the floor or sitting in a chair in the room. Be close to the bed to physically reassure them of your presence and so that you can easily place them back without exhausting yourself.

But do not get in the bed or allow your child to sit in your lap or be out of the bed. Only tell them one time that you are going to sit right there and that they have to stay in bed.

Do not do any more talking—just wait them out. Do not go to sleep on the floor next to the bed or get into the bed, no matter how tempting it may be. When your toddler is asleep, leave the room.

When teaching kids to sleep on their own, the first week is the hardest. But, if done consistently, it shouldn't take more than two to three weeks for the new sleep habit to become established.

Dealing With Crying

The toddler stage is full of emotion. Some days are a roller coaster ride with all the extremes of emotional response a toddler can have. Many of these responses are not reasonable or justified, but they are very real for a toddler. As a parent, it is critical to teach your child how to cope with tough emotional situations and come out on the other side better for it.

When you are trying to break an unhealthy sleep association, your child may cry, but it is doing no harm as long as you are present, active, and responsive. It may not feel good, but for a toddler, your actions speak louder than words. Your presence nearby as they sleep is being responsive.

Reinforce this by telling your toddler every night that you are just down the hall. It will be reinforced even if you have to sit with them for a few weeks until they understand that you mean what you say. Your child is safe in their room and, deep down, you know this. If they cry, that fact doesn't change. Your toddler is still safe and you are still nearby.

A Word From Verywell

You are helping your child cope with the hard task of becoming more independent and learning how to sleep on his own. Be sure to take moments during the day to talk about it with them.

Offer your child lots of daytime cuddles and love. Tell them how proud you are of them each time that they take a step toward sleeping on their own. Remark on their progress and be sure to take the time to listen when they express pride in themselves. Some toddlers are surprised when they accomplish things that they thought were too hard in the beginning.

4 Sources
Verywell Family uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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  3. The Greater Good Science Center at the University of California, Berkeley. How Cosleeping Can Help You and Your Baby.

  4. American Academy of Pediatrics. How to Keep Your Sleeping Baby Safe: AAP Policy Explained.

By Stephanie Brown
Stephanie Brown is a parenting writer with experience in the Head Start program and in NAEYC accredited child care centers.