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Sleep Habits: Help your child learn how to self-soothe

When anxious children and teens sleep in their parents’ bed, they are not facing their fears, and will continue to be afraid of sleeping alone. They do not learn how to calm themselves down, and do not see that everything will be okay. Co-sleeping makes it difficult for parents to get a good night’s sleep or find alone time with a spouse or partner. Even though most parents know it is not appropriate for their child to be afraid of sleeping alone, they are unsure of how to change this behavior.

Asking a young child to go to sleep while you stay awake is basically asking him to experience a separation. Understand that, and you’ll understand why some kids will do anything to avoid going to sleep.

Actually, it’s possible for bedtime to serve as a quintessential family activity, a time of real closeness. In many families, however, bedtime is more of a battle. Helping your children develop good sleep habits is an important component of good parenting. Kids who are not well rested will be cranky, and kids who can’t fall asleep by themselves will suffer stress that may manifest as anger and frustration at their parents.

Infants fall asleep by themselves naturally, but  after approximately the age of four months, falling asleep alone is a skill that  babies have to learn; like all others skills, the younger the age at which you start learning, the better. Many studies have shown that kids who do not learn how to fall asleep by themselves are likely to have trouble sleeping later in life.

You can’t make kids want to go to sleep, and you can’t make them learn how, but if you start a bedtime activity when kids are infants, keep to a regular schedule, and set clear boundaries kids will accept the need to fall asleep and learn how to do it.

First, create a bedtime ritual. Try to perform activities, such as bath time and teeth brushing, in the same order each night. Perhaps you could sit with your child on your lap first and read a book or tell story and then put her into her crib or bed. These bedtime rituals should be ones that help your child feel drowsy. Whichever bedtime rituals you choose to do, just make sure you’re consistent with them.

Also, whatever you do, make sure that the routine doesn’t involve the child’s being dependent on you to actually drop off to sleep. That means you shouldn’t rock her to sleep, walk her around, lie down next to her, or sit in the room until she falls asleep (reassure her that you are right outside and will check on her often – then do). The reason for this is simple: If your child is dependent on you to fall asleep at bedtime, she will likely need the same kind of attention to fall back asleep in the middle of the night when she naturally awakens.

Second, to avoid middle-of-the-night issues, it’s important to teach children to self-soothe. Perhaps she sucks on a pacifier, cuddles a stuffed animal, gently rocks herself. Help your child try out different self-soothing techniques. Be consistent in allowing her to fall asleep by herself. Your child might cry when you leave the room. Calmly tell her that you love her, but that it’s time to sleep and that you are right outside and will come back and check on her. If your child is still crying after a reasonable interval, go back in  and reassure her; you can briefly pat her, remind her that you’re outside, etc., but don’t pick her up, lie down with her, or bring her into your bed.

Starting Young

You can start to teach your child to self-soothe at around five or six months. You need to make sure that your baby is not hungry, but once she is fed, you’ll want her to be able to fall asleep by herself in her crib.

If you think your child is waking in the middle of the night because of a medical reason, check with your doctor to make sure that there aren’t other sleep issues occurring (such as apnea).

As They Grow

This process will work for older children if modified appropriately. If you have a child nearing teen years who still needs help falling asleep, you can improve sleep habits, but only by being consistent in teaching your child to self-soothe, and by not assisting with the usual associations that your child has come to need.

At any age, the advantage of having children who can sleep through the night unassisted is that they develop good sleep habits that will stay with them, everybody in the household gets a better night’s sleep, and, as a parent, you know when you child cries in the middle of the night that something is truly wrong.