Thursday 13 December 2018

Dear David Coleman: How can I get my three-year-old to fall asleep in her own bed without needing me to lie with her?

Photo posed
Photo posed

Clinical psychologist David Coleman offers parenting advice in his weekly column.

Q. My daughter is three-and-a-half years old and each night we have to lie down with her, in her bed, until she is asleep. We started lying with her as soon as we moved her from her cot. It takes up to two hours each night and we have two other children so this really eats into their bed times and they end up going to bed quite late as a consequence.

I was thinking of using a star chart but am not sure if this is the approach I should take. How can I get her to go to bed and fall asleep without having to lie down with her?

David replies: I am always struck by how many queries I get about eating and sleeping amongst toddlers and pre-schoolers. These are key areas of our children's experiences that also seem to have a real impact on parents.

Certainly, when it comes to sleep, I think our children's habits often, on a practical level, disrupt our own sleep, or as you describe in your query, your other children's bedtime routines. This can mean that the whole family can end up tired, and possibly grumpy because of it.

Readers of this column will know that I am a fan of co-sleeping (either sharing a room or a bed with your children) as I think it does offer children high levels of security and comfort and allows them to have more uninterrupted sleep.

However, co-sleeping has to work for parents and for children, and so if either is having disrupted sleep because of the sharing, it is time to change.

If you are not already doing it, the first step in developing any new sleep habit is to solidify (or create) a really strong and consistent bedtime routine. The regularity of the steps of the routine will help your daughter learn that she is heading, slowly, but dependably, towards the time that she is expected to be asleep.

Having a strong bedtime routine might help shorten the amount of time it takes her to fall asleep. Good bedtime routines often contain the four 'b's of bathing (or cleaning up before bed), brushing of teeth and hair, books (or storytime) and then bedtime itself.

In our technological world I think we also have to include some clear defining time when screens are switched off and removed.

With three-year-olds, the earlier in the evening you can do that the better.

The whole focus of your four 'b's routine is that it is soothing and relaxing for your child, and also acts as clear signposts of the stages of becoming ready for sleep.

Once the routine is well-established, you may find that it shortens up the length of time that it takes her to fall asleep.

Be sure, too, that once you lie with her it signifies the end of talking.

So gently remind her it is sleep time and that you are no longer going to talk to her or engage with her.

This kind, but firm, approach underlies the whole process of extricating yourself from her bed at bedtimes. It is OK for you to be really clear and committed to the process, such that she knows you intend to follow it through.

Once you have shortened the "getting to sleep" time, you can move to the next stage of removing yourself from her bed. Begin by sitting in the bed with her, rather than lying with her. Continue to offer your physical presence for a while until she seems to be able to settle relatively quickly while you sit with her.

Then slowly over time, as she becomes accustomed to, and accepting of, each new stage, you can begin to withdraw further and further from her.

Those steps might be sitting beside her while letting her hold your hand, then sitting without touching, then sitting further from the bed, then moving to the doorway, then moving out of the door, then coming in for regular checking visits.

All the way through this process you are trying to move at her pace. Some of the steps may be harder for her to accept than others and you may have to stick with those stages for longer before you can move on to the next stage.

The important thing, however, is that you are committed to the change and so see the whole process through in a consistent, but gentle, way.

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