Family Life: Provide comfort and security to help your child fall asleep
Q I have a 26-month-old boy who, up until recently, had no problem going to sleep on his own.
His routine was as follows: bath, read a book and then off to bed. He was happy to do this and would then kiss me goodnight and wave to me before going off to sleep. This has all changed in the last three weeks and now my son will no longer go to sleep on his own. He screams the minute you leave the room and will only go to sleep if you sit beside him. To make matters worse he is also waking a few times a night. Up to this point he would only wake once a night for a bottle and then go straight back to sleep. Now he wakes numerous times and again won't go back to sleep unless you sit with him. Nothing has changed in his routine either at home or in the creche but it seems all of a sudden, that he has developed some insecurity or fear when going to bed. We also have a new baby (five months) who sleeps great and I don't want to disturb him, so we take the easy option and sit with our older son until he settles. Can you please offer advice as to how to combat this and offer a possible reason for the sudden change in behaviour; we have noticed that he now has become much more aware of his surroundings of late.
A SLEEP is all about feeling comfortable and secure. The safer we feel the easier it is to fall asleep and the less disrupted our sleep will be.
You may have noticed that any time you are stressed or worried about something to do with the children, your home, your job or your extended family, that your own sleep can be disrupted.
So, anxiety is the first thing that I consider when I hear about a child who previously had a very good sleep habit becoming restless or finding it difficult to settle at night.
From what you describe, however, anxiety is not the most obvious reason for your son's disrupted sleep. Usually change brings about anxiety, but most things in your son's life seem very stable and settled.
What might be changing, however, is his relationship with you and with his dad.
Small babies and infants feel like they and their parents are one unit, or one being. They have no sense of themselves as a separate person or entity.
However, at around two years of age many children will start to individuate. That is, they start to realise that they are separate beings. While this is an important developmental milestone for children, it can also produce anxiety.
Reliable, consistent parents offer children wonderful security. In those early years that security is copper-fastened by this sense of oneness with their parent. When children come to realise that their parents are separate people, then a small element of that security is lost. Greater independence and freedom is gained, but at the cost of a deep feeling of connectedness and safety. This may be why your son is less settled at night.
The good news is that, if this is indeed the case, then your son will regain his sense of equilibrium and security as he adjusts to his new relationship with you and his sleep should settle back.
You can help to promote this settling by being consistent and reliable for him. I agree with your approach of staying with your son while he settles himself to sleep. While this may be a time-consuming chore in the evenings it really benefits his comfort and security, which are the key ingredients required in order to fall asleep.
You won't have to stay with him forever, just for the next while. Once he is back to falling asleep within a short period, you can start to wean him off your presence as he falls asleep.
To do this you can leave him when he seems drowsy, with the promise of a return "checking" visit every couple of minutes.
Because he will have been reassured by your consistency he is less likely to scream at your departure. Indeed, as long as you keep the separation short enough you should be back in the room with him before he gets distressed.
If for some reason he does get distressed before you return then just go back in to him straight away as he may not be ready for the weaning process.
This gentle weaning off the need to have you in the room is the most emotionally supportive way to help children to learn to soothe themselves to sleep. Generally, once children are in (or are back in) the habit of settling themselves to sleep they are also less disrupted throughout the night, so you should find that you all get back to a decent night's sleep.