How Do I Deal With Hair Twirling at Bedtime?

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  • October 16, 2014


Hi, Kim West, The Sleep Lady and in this video blog, I’m going to answer Amber’s question:


“My son Owen will be 2 in a little over a month and he has never really fallen asleep on his own or slept by himself. The only way he goes to sleep is by playing with someone’s hair, and he wakes up almost every time he’s laid down alone.

“He doesn’t nap for more than 30 minutes, and he wakes up just as much as he did when we first had him. Sometimes we have good nights but most nights we’re up and down. He talks a lot in his sleep and he’s even sleep walked.

“We’ve recently tried getting him to sleep on his own but he will just cry and cry without giving up. Other times he’ll make it a game and have us chase him when he climbs out of bed. I tried to teach him mommy and daddy’s bed and Owen’s bed. I don’t know what to do. My hair can’t take any more pulling and my husband and I can’t take any more screaming. Please help.”


Hair Twirling is Very Common


I hope you know that the hair twirling and pulling is super common. It’s one of the number one sleep crutches for children, besides being fed to sleep. Before we get to how to handle that (which is a bigger question than it sounds like), he’s in a bed. I’m making this assumption because I don’t see anything about a crib.


Know When Your Child is Actually Able To Understand “Stay In Bed”Little girl rubbing her eyes in the morning


Because he’s not even 2 yet, his cognitive ability to really understand “stay in your bed all night long.” The impulse control that he needs will develop (on average) until around 2 ½ years old,. Now, I’m not saying that a 2-year-old couldn’t understand this, but it’s going to take longer, which is going to take even more consistency on your part. If you want to keep him in the bed, know that you’re probably going to have to gate the door to prevent him from running out and you having to chase him all over the place.


Know When To Make A Change


Know that if after 10 to 12 nights if you and your husband cannot take it and you see that Owen is just not understanding what you’re asking him to do:


1. That you are asking him to put himself to sleep;
2. To remember to stay in his bed, and
3. To return to his bed.


Then it’s just too much for him right now. Understand that it’s over his head, at which time you might have to decide to get a crib, or if you have a crib, put it in his room and start using it.

One could argue, “Oh is that really worth it for 6 months?” I think it could be, and you could really use the crib up until 3 years old. There’s no saying that he has to get moved out of the crib at 2 ½. Of course, you have to look at the weight limitations of the crib but that’s a definite consideration. So, again, know that you always have that option.


Prepare to Sleep Coach

So, going back to his bed, you will need to be prepared to sleep coach him. I would say it will probably take at least 2 to 3 weeks, a little bit longer than normal because he’s young and he’s in a bed. Make sure that you safety proof his room and then start on a night where he’s been well-napped (anyway that you can get those naps). Then have your normal bedtime routine. He’s in his bed and depending on what kind of bed he has you’d either sit on the floor or in a chair to do The Shuffle.


Talk to Your ChildMom comforting her baby girl


Talk to him, saying something like, “Owen, sweetie, you can twirl mommy’s hair gently during story time. And then once we’re done with story time, we’re all done twirling mommy’s hair or pulling mommy’s hair and you can twirl or pull (this blanket, stuffed animal, etc.).”

I had a client whose child twirled her hair and she got him a stuffed animal that was a horse with a mane and of course a tail, so she could (like a broken record) redirect him to the horse instead of her hair. I’m not saying he’ll love the idea, but it’s that constant redirection and setting that limit that will make the difference.


Pull Up Your Hair


I would encourage you to put your hair up in a clip, bun, or ponytail. I had one mom wear a shower cap. Do what you have to so that your son gets a clear message that we’re all done with touching mommy’s hair. You could also have dad do this transition, but I’ve had children who will just do the same thing with dad’s hair.


Be Firm With Your Limits


Again, set that limit and sit in a chair, which you’re going to slowly move out of his room. Every time he wakes up, walk him back quietly to his bed and sit in the chair. Be consistent and stay calm.  I don’t find that it works at this age (especially in a bed) to just put him back in his bed and leave because he’ll be right behind you.


Realistic Expectations


He may not truly understand what you are asking of him at his age. As a result, I think you will be more successful if you do the Shuffle and stay with him and slowly move out of his room. I usually find one of the hardest times is when you’re sitting on the other side of the gate.

I have it all outlined in my book with lots of strategies for the middle of the night for this age group which can be challenging. You might want to consider getting my book, reading the chapter that covers 2 year olds, purchasing one of my courses, or hiring one of my Certified Gentle Sleep Coaches to help you stay consistent and get through this whole process.

Know that there really is sleep at the end of the tunnel.

Video filmed by In Focus Studios

If you have experienced hair twirling with your child, please share!   Supporting each other makes parenting so much easier!

Kim West
Kim is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker who has been a practicing child and family therapist for more than 24 years, and the creator of the original gentle, proven method to get a good night’s sleep for you and your child. She is the author of The Sleep Lady's Good Night Sleep Tight, its companion Workbook and 52 Sleep Secrets for Babies. Click here to read more about her.

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