If there’s one thing that parents struggle with on a consistent basis, it’s getting their kids to sleep. Of course, all parents expect their newborns to keep them up all hours of the night, but by age 2, the hope is that sleep can follow a steady routine: a nice nap in the afternoon and then a nice, smooth bedtime ritual at night.
But, as you know, that rarely happens. A few months may go by where everything seems to be clicking, and then, all of a sudden, the sleep cycles seem to fall apart. At that point, the idea of sleep becoming an established ritual seems to become a mirage. Whereas a child might have slept soundly for hours at a time, there’s a return to those 1-2 hours of waking and dozing, but no stable sleep.
Even worse, the interrupted sleep cycle starts to reverberate in every other aspect of your child’s life. It makes it harder for them to concentrate throughout the day, and it changes their dietary preferences. You might even notice that your child is acting differently.
So sleep is obviously a priority. The good news is that it is possible to make sleep an established routine that doesn’t involve driving your child around the block at night in your car or reading the same bedtime story over and over again before they fall asleep.
What I’ve learned from my own experience is that children are fully capable of learning to sleep on their own. Sleep is both a skill and a routine. As a result, too much parental involvement in the sleep process might be the reason why children are having a hard time sleeping on their own.
You also have to keep in mind that children learn very quickly, and they are masters at recognizing patterns. So the more familiar you can make the sleep pattern, the better it will be for you. There are three pieces of advice that I like to give parents who are having real concerns about their child’s sleep habits.
First, walk through all the steps of going to sleep with your child. Remember, sleep is a skill - it is something that can be learned. Some people refer to creating a “dress rehearsal” of the bedtime ritual, and that’s a great way of thinking about it. Explain to your child that you are going to stay with them for a set amount of time and then return later. If needed, show them exactly what this is going to look like for them.
Secondly, use all of your senses - and especially touch - to reassure your child that it’s “safe” to fall asleep. Just as your infant once fell asleep in your arms by sensing your warmth and proximity, your older child will also fall asleep if they can feel your warmth, trust and respect. That last word - “respect” - is key. Your child has to believe in the fact that you believe in their ability to fall asleep.
Third, I can’t overstate the importance of coming up with a bedtime routine. Some use the word “ritual” - and this might be a better way of thinking about this process for a young child. For you, taking a bath before bed might just be a normal, everyday occurrence. But for your child, it’s part of an almost magical ritual, in which the process of bathing and then changing into an outfit that’s designed for “sleep” takes on particularly important meaning.
The combination of all three steps can be very effective in helping young ones go to sleep. It will become clear to them that the reason why you absolutely, positively won’t read them another bedtime story is because it’s “not part of the ritual.” By reading that bedtime story one more time, you would be breaking up the magic that is a good night’s sleep.