Teaching Toddlers to Sleep Alone

Overcoming Negative Sleep Associations in Kids

Young boy sleeping

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

Some parents don't realize that the habits they allow or even encourage can lead to sleep problems. Once these problems have developed, it can be difficult to make changes, though 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 now 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 with your child. Children start establishing sleep associations very early in life. If a toddler is used to falling asleep with a bottle or being rocked to sleep, he 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 to 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.

Parents should always consider whether a sleep association is adversely affecting their child's sleep, their sleep, or that of another family member or caregiver.

Problems With Co-Sleeping

Co-sleeping (also known as the family bed) is a hotly debated issue that may straddle the line between healthy and unhealthy sleep habits and associations. Many parenting experts say that, when done right, co-sleeping is perfectly safe and healthy.

However, even if you’re co-sleeping 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.

Co-sleeping 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.

As a result, the child may compensate for the loss by falling asleep in the car, at meals, or wherever there is an opportunity for a nap.

Fixing Negative Sleep Associations

Fixing a toddler’s sleep problem is not easy, but it's not impossible. Once solved, your toddler will be a good sleeper, and 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 of this situation. 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 fail the kids when they allow them to do what they want just because they're louder, cry, or are stubborn.

To fix negative sleep associations:

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

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 his own, tell him that he needs to stay in his bed and sleep. Be firm. Once a parent has 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 him that you're just down the hall but that he has to stay in bed. If your toddler gets out of bed, then you must take him and physically put him 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 not to tense your face or posture.

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

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 him of your presence and so that you can easily place him back without over exhausting yourself.

But do not get in the bed or allow him to sit in your lap or be out of the bed. You also should only tell him one time that you are going to sit right there and that he has to stay in his bed.

Do not do any more talking—just wait him out. Do not go to sleep on the floor next to his bed or get into the bed, no matter how tempting it may be. When he's asleep, leave the room.

When teaching kids to sleep on their own, the first week is going to be 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 not all groundless. These feelings are very real for a toddler. As a parent, it is critical to teach your children 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, actions speak louder than words. Your presence nearby as he sleeps 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 him for a few weeks until he understands and is secure that you mean what you say. He is safe in his room and, deep down, you know this. If he cries, that fact doesn't change. Your toddler is still safe in his room 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 him.

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

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