Ask the Expert: Taking the fight out of the night
A more effective way to teach young children to stay in bed by themselves is to give them the comfort and support they seek but only when they co-operate and go to bed.
Practically, this means that when your daughter comes out, you say to her, “Go back up to your bed and when you are quiet for five minutes lying on your bed, then Mum will come back and tuck you in.” Then you wait for her to co-operate before tucking her in with a kiss and a cuddle.
The first few times you do this, you might have to sit in her room or close by, but make sure to wait patiently until she gets back in her bed and lies down before you give her the attention she needs for a few minutes.
Over time you gradually increase the time you expect her to wait, and eventually she learns to fall asleep by herself.
The key to making this work is always to respond gently when you ask her to go back and give her warm attention once she has co-operated. Teaching your daughter how to settle at night You describe in your question how your daughter started having problems once she lost her comfort blanket. This means that she has not yet learnt new rituals and strategies to help her sleep at night. It is worth taking time to teach her some of these and to integrate these into your night-time routine with her.
For example, you can show her how to lie down on the bed and to become gently aware of her breathing and to count her breaths, or you can help her develop a ritual of recalling happy events from the day and remembering what she is grateful for.
If she is finding it hard to sleep, suggest that she sits up and reads for a few minutes, instead of coming out for you, and then lies down again and goes through the sleep rituals again. Have lots of relaxing books nearby. Use a sleep chart To restart a new bedtime routine, a picture chart can be helpful. In these pictures you could show both the relaxing pre-bedtime steps – for example, playtime, having a bath, putting on pyjamas, reading a story and so on – and also the stay-in-bed steps that show her lying in bed relaxing, and then Mum coming back to check on her and tuck her in.
In the families I have worked with it has also been useful to include two final pictures: one showing the child fast asleep and getting a special kiss from Mum or Dad – it can be very reassuring for a child to know you will be there when they are asleep – and another showing her waking up in the morning and getting a special star on a chart for having such a relaxed bedtime.
For more help in dealing with sleep problems, please see my book, Positive Parenting.
Dr John Sharry is a social worker and founder of the Parents Plus charity. See solutiontalk.ie