Hi. I’m Kim West, the Sleep Lady. Kate wrote to me because her two year old won’t sleep without her.
“Hi. How can I get my two-year-old to sleep without me?”
This is a great question, Kate. Of course, even though it’s a simple and short question it has a big answer.
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Your Child Can Learn
Your two-year-old has to learn the skill of putting himself to sleep and back to sleep without you.
Start Sleep Training Well-Rested
When you start sleep coaching, you’re going to want to start on a day your child has had a great nap. Friday night is the most popular night to begin, so you would make sure he is well-rested during the day Friday.
Get a nap any way you can. Whether it’s in a stroller, a car, or lying down with him or rocking him — whatever works for your child — just make sure he naps. He should be awake for 4 to 5 hours between when he wakes from his nap and bedtime.
This ensures he is not overtired, but will still be tired enough to fall asleep at bedtime.
Determine Your Sleep Coaching Plan
If he’s newly two-years-old, he probably doesn’t have the cognitive and verbal skills to understand a family meeting or sleep chart. However, if he’s closer to three-years-old, he should be able to follow a family meeting and sleep chart, which is what I would recommend.
The bigger question for you, Kate, is where is your son going to sleep? I’m going to assume he is on the newer end of two and doesn’t yet have the cognitive ability to understand that he needs to stay in his bed all night long. He may also lack the impulse control to stay in bed when he wakes. He can’t remember yet that he needs to stay in bed and not go find mommy or daddy.
My guess as to the reason you started sleeping with him is that he probably climbed out of his crib. You started to lie down with him to help him to go to sleep, which is super common. The hard part about this is that since he has the ability to get out of bed, you will probably need to gate his door to help him stay in his room. I’m not saying you need to shut the door or lock him in, but for safety and impulse control reasons, a gate at the door may be helpful.
What Not To Do
When you begin sleep coaching, continue with your soothing bedtime routine, but don’t lie down with him. Make sure you don’t lie in the bed next to him and read books until his eyes are getting heavy and then try to sneak out. That usually makes kids feel panicked, and in turn, they start waking up even more. He needs to be drowsy enough to sleep, but alert enough to know that he is being put to bed by himself.
Time To Start Sleep Coaching
Start coaching with a soothing bedtime routine. Then sit next to him and say, “Mommy is not going to lie down with you. Mommy sleeps in her room now, so I’m going to stay with you and teach you how to put yourself to sleep.” Obviously, he’s not going to easily accept that, but you want to calmly communicate that things are changing now.
Sit upright next to him. You can touch him and verbally reassure him. Initially, you can do even more to soothe him than you think you “should”. Slowly reduce the amount of intervention you use to help him fall asleep. Over the course of several nights, you want to move farther away from him. First sitting next to the bed, then across the room by the door, then just outside the gate, and finally out of his view.
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Night Time Wake Ups
During this process, it’s highly likely he will have several wakings during the night, where he goes to the gate and calls for you. When that happens, meet him at the gate and instruct him to get back into bed. You can go in and tuck him in once if he gets back into bed himself. Return to your Shuffle chair position.
He will be getting up in the night because he doesn’t yet have the impulse control to stay in bed. It’s going to take some time and real dedication on your part to get through this. I don’t want you to start until you’re 200% ready. Any inconsistency will make this much harder for him, which will make it harder for you too.
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