It’s normal for young children to wake up four to six times during the night. But if they often want to crawl into bed with you, chances are no one is getting a peaceful night’s sleep.
For most children, learning to sleep independently in their own bed is a skill that can be taught.
“Parents can be their child’s best teachers, especially when it comes to sleep,” said Jamie Travis, PhD, Akron Children’s pediatric psychologist who specializes in treating pediatric behavioral sleep disorders. “Determining how much and what kind of parental involvement is needed can help your child overcome their nighttime struggles.”
Dr. Travis offers these tips to get your child to stay in their own bed at night.
Establish a consistent bedtime routine.
Start to wind down at a set time each evening with quiet activities like reading books, playing with calm toys, getting items ready for the next day and/or completing personal hygiene tasks.
Get rid of sleep competitors.
Things like watching television, playing video games or engaging in heart-pumping physical play around bedtime can stimulate the brain and body, making it more difficult to fall asleep.
Figure out what is causing them to wake up at night.
There are numerous reasons kids wake up at night, ranging from the temperature of the sleep space to how noisy and dark the room is. Since many toddlers are afraid of the dark and don’t like being alone, Dr. Travis suggests using a nightlight or developing a game, such as a flashlight scavenger hunt, to get your child used to the dark.
In this game, your child enters their dark room with only a flashlight to look for hidden objects while you stand outside the room. Over time, the objects get smaller and harder to find so the amount of time your child spends in the dark room gradually increases.
Teach them how to focus on pleasant thoughts.
One way to gradually change behaviors is to practice brain distractions. These can include listening to a sound machine or sleep-focused audio stories or prompting your child to think about the things they enjoy. Their positive thoughts might include remembering a favorite vacation or imagining being in a magical, made-up place.
Deep breathing is another form of mental distraction that helps with sleep.
“I tell young children to do belly breathing where they breathe in with their nose, like they are smelling their favorite hot food, such as mac and cheese, and then exhale through their mouth, as if they are blowing on it to cool it down,” Dr. Travis said.
This type of breathing sends relaxation signals through their body and helps their brain to stay focused on a task while keeping their eyes closed.
It may take time for your child to overcome their fears and get more independent around sleep. Dr. Travis recommends using a “Reward” chart to help them remember and meet their goals.
For example, each night your child doesn’t use electronics and completes the other calming steps of their bedtime routine, they are awarded two points (one for each goal). Then, these nightly points can be traded for rewards like family board game night, a new toy or book or an outing to the park or library with family. Because your child helps choose their goals and rewards, they are more invested in their own success.
Plan for setbacks.
Raising your child to be an independent sleeper requires a commitment to consistency. Sometimes, setbacks are inevitable.
Dr. Travis recommends coming up with a plan to handle those setbacks. For instance, instead of allowing your child to sleep in your bed, lay a sleeping bag on the floor by your bed. Over time, move the sleeping bag closer to the child’s room. The goal is to help your child realize their own bed is more comfortable than sleeping in a sleeping bag in a hallway.
Listen to Dr. Travis for other tips to help your child sleep in their own bed. If your child continues to have trouble sleeping independently, talk to one of our pediatricians. If necessary, your provider can refer your child to a sleep specialist.