Dear David Coleman: My toddler has started crying every night going to bed. What can we do?
Clinical psychologist David Coleman offers parenting advice in his weekly column.
Q: I am having problems with my three-year-old daughter at night for the past few weeks. She goes to bed at 8pm and starts crying within five minutes of being put to bed. It could go on for about two hours. Eventually she will fall asleep, but wakes again two or three times during the night crying, wanting us to sit on the bed with her.
I wonder if it could be happening because her baby brother is still in our room? She is a very happy little girl during the day, so I don't know what is causing this. What can we do?
David replies: There are times when it is immediately obvious to us that something, in particular, has prompted a change in our child's behaviour or routines. Equally, though, there are other times when their behaviour changes, seemingly suddenly, and there is no clear explanation.
However, it is rare for children to change their habits or behaviours for no reason. Children, like most people, enjoy routine and habit, because it makes their world predictable and reliable and that is reassuring for them. So they are usually motivated to keep the status quo.
If your daughter has changed her sleeping habits in the last few weeks, to become more clingy and anxious at night time, then it is likely that something has changed in her world that has created this anxiety.
Indeed, changes to sleeping habits or eating habits are often the first signs we get that our children are anxious, as these seem to be the first areas to be affected when children have worries on their minds.
So, it is probably less likely that the continuation of your son sleeping in your room, has suddenly disturbed or upset her. It is probably worth casting your mind back, over the last few weeks, to see if anything else might have caused your daughter some kind of anxiety. Given that Christmas happened recently, could something about Christmas have disturbed her?
Was she told, for example, stories of Santa Claus coming down the chimney? While this might be an exciting thing for most children, it might upset some who get distressed at the thought of a strange man being able to come into the house, through the chimney, to wander around at will.
Has there been any sickness, or death, in your extended family in the last while? Have there been conversations in your home about friends or relatives who are separating, creating uncertainty for their children? If your daughter has picked up on any such conversations, it might have worried her.
If you are aware that there is a potential source of worry for her, then being able to address that issue might help her to regain her security and allow her to fall quickly back into her old and comfortable sleep routine.
Your other task is to offer her greater security, for a short while, until she regains some of her previous equilibrium at night time. If you feel that part of her anxiety or distress may be about being distant from you, at night time then allowing her to be close to you might help to resolve that.
This might involve spending a little bit longer with her, at bedtime, until she falls asleep. If you leave too soon, it seems she gets distressed.
Alternatively, could she move into your room, with her baby brother, for a period of time, to allow her to get back into her old habits of falling asleep quickly and easily? If so, then, later, you might be able to wean her back into the habit of being in her own bedroom.
If you think that company might help her to fall asleep, then could she and her brother share a room for a while? That might not work for her brother, but if it did, then having him in the room might just be the extra comfort and security that she needs.
It would also mean that your presence, to settle the two of them, could be focused on the one location, rather than spread between two rooms.
Whatever you choose to do, your goal sounds like it needs to be on helping her to feel more secure and comfortable such that she can let herself fall asleep with greater confidence.
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