Dear David Coleman: We can't get our toddler to sleep independently of us. Have you any ideas?
Clinical psychologist David Coleman offers parenting advice in his weekly column.
Q. We are having problems getting our two-and-a-half year old to sleep independently. For over a year, he won't get off to sleep without me lying beside him. He takes up to an hour to get to sleep at night. I can't just put him down and leave, as he gets hysterically upset. I have tried gradually pulling back on contact, but he gets so upset when I won't lie beside him. I won't leave him crying as other methods suggest. We moved him to a toddler bed two weeks ago in the hope that it would make things better, but it hasn't helped at all. Have you any ideas?
David replies: Children's sleeping habits can often appear to be fickle. Some children fall into great habits of independent sleep and others require high levels of parental support and reassurance.
Before considering any changes to your son's sleeping habits, you might want to consider the key circumstances that he needs in order to be able to fall asleep and to then sleep soundly.
Like all of us, your son will need to feel fully comfortable, peaceful and secure in order to fall asleep. The comfort aspect relates to his physical self. If he is too hot, too cold, has a lumpy pillow, or no pillow, has itchy PJs or sheets etc, it is going to be harder for him to fall asleep, as he will be distracted by his physical discomfort.
The next aspect to consider for your son is his thinking and how "at peace" he is. Some children have very active brains, and find it hard to switch off at night. For many small children, the developmental tasks, and the busyness of their day can make it hard to "let go" and sleep at night.
Security relates to his emotional self. He needs to feel safe and at ease. This may relate to his sense of his physical security. Naturally, if he feels he is at risk of some danger, then he is unlikely to be able to switch off. Your son might perceive that he is in danger if he doesn't have the security of you present in the bed with him.
Also, if he gets anxious or upset, for example when you try to leave, his adrenalin or cortisol levels may be raised and this will leave him "on edge", making it harder to fall asleep and more likely that he will be disturbed during his sleep.
It is this issue of security that probably initiated your son's dependence on your physical presence with him in the bed to be able to relax and switch off. Now, any insecurity may also be reinforced by habit.
Unfortunately, there may be no easy way to change this habit that avoids any distress for your son. Even removing yourself from his bed, to sit beside him, seems to be upsetting for him. It may be best to help him to cope with this distress, rather than avoid it.
If he is abandoned to cry, feeling like you or his dad don't care about him and his distress, it might be bad for him. But, as you are willing to stay with him and comfort him in his distress, it is unlikely to have any long-term negative effect. Indeed, if he learns that he can cope with being on his own, it may add to his sense of resilience for the future.
Hard though his crying may be to witness, he does need to realise that he can feel upset and that, in time and with support, he can regulate that upset. You are willing to offer your soothing to him and this will help him to learn that he can soothe himself.
So, when it comes to sleep time, have another go at using a phased approach to reducing his physical reliance on you for his sleep. Start, as you have done, by sitting by the bed, holding his hand or stroking his head. You may need to be firm, but kind, if he protests by crying.
Gradually, over time, you can then distance yourself further, eventually getting to the point of just visiting him to check on him as he falls asleep alone. Your own emotional response to him throughout the process is important. Warmth and understanding are key.
Weathering the storm of that initial distress, which might be really difficult at the start, is central to keeping the process moving forward. Your confidence in his ability to cope (as well as your own ability to cope with his distress), will go a long way to helping gain the independence that frees you both up.
Health & Living