Soothing themselves to sleep


ASK THE EXPERT:Children should be able to soothe themselves to sleep rather than rely on their parents, writes DAVID COLEMAN

WE HAVE a three-year-old who is now sleeping in his own bed but wakes up in the night (every night) and looks to go to bed with us. But we are persistent and bring him to his own bed. But one of us has to sleep next to him in his bed until he drifts off – most times we end up sleeping in his bed. How can we resolve this? Because he is not in a cot and sleeps in his own bed he can easily jump out of his bed and run into our room. Putting a gate on his bedroom door could be an option but will this go down well? Any advice or even suggestion to see someone about this would be helpful.

I DON’T THINK you need to go to the extreme of putting a gate on his doorway. It would seem to be almost imprisoning him if you were to do that.

My heart also tells me there is nothing wrong with a three-year-old snuggling in with his parents after waking in the night. In fact it is testament to how secure, safe and reassuring he considers you to be.

However, if you feel uncomfortable with him in your bed then you are right to pursue a plan to give him the message that he needs to stay in his room. The key to breaking the pattern is to try to avoid getting into the bed with him to settle and soothe him when you bring him back into his own room. You want him to be able to soothe himself to sleep rather than relying on you.

Do you need to climb in beside him when you settle him at the start of the night? If you do, that is where you start a process of weaning him off that need. Initially you might start by sitting on the bed with him. As he gets used to this you can move a little further, sitting beside the bed and then over time moving further away until you are by the door and then outside the door as he falls asleep. You might spend a few days or a week at each step of the weaning.

Once he is used to soothing himself to sleep you may find that he doesn’t wake up during the night or that you can simply bring him back to his own bed and leave him to settle.

MY GRANDDAUGHTER is a bright four-and-a-half-year-old. She is potty trained and has been dry at night for some time but she refuses to use the toilet for poos and insists on using a nappy every other night before going to bed to do her business. She has just finished a year at play school and is going to big school in September. Her teacher at playschool says her condition is not unique and the family doctor prescribed medicine to loosen her stools. She is not hard bound but seems to have a psychological problem with the toilet procedure. She says she will do it before big school in September. Any suggestions to unblock her hang-up would be greatly appreciated.

The thing about toilet training and children is that the issue can often centre around control. The achievement of gaining control of your bowel and bladder is a big developmental step for any child.

Your granddaughter has managed to achieve this control in as much as she is well able to hold onto her bowel motions until she is ready to go. Her issue, in fact, is simply about where she chooses to go to the toilet for her poos.

I am presuming that because she sits on the loo for her wees, she doesn’t have any great anxiety about the bathroom or the toilet itself. This too is a good thing.

I wonder if her decision to wait and use a nappy at night is to do with her wanting to exert some control in the family. It may be that she has learned that by not using a toilet for poos she gets lots of notice and fussing from her parents.

I think her “hang-up” will unblock itself if all the adults around her take the pressure off her and leave her to it. Given her age it is okay to let her take the responsibility for managing her own toilet habits and nature will take its course.

  • David Coleman is a clinical psychologist and broadcaster with RTÉ television.
  • Readers’ queries are welcome and will be answered through the column, but David regrets he cannot enter into individual correspondence. Questions should be emailed to