Bedtime used to be such hard work in our house.
My son is three now and goes to bed each night without a fuss and falls happily asleep on his own.
Sure, there are nights when he doesn’t want to go but, for the most part, his bed time is pretty easy nowadays.
But it wasn’t always this way. Until six months ago, his dad lay beside his bed night after night in the dark until he fell asleep. We made a few attempts to get him to go to sleep alone but he always started crying when we left the room so the lying on the floor went on.
My other half frequently dozed off during the bedtime process and missed most of the evening, much to his frustration.
This post is about how we made that change, how surprisingly easy it was, and the 5 easy strategies you can try with your toddler tonight. No preparation is required – except reading the rest of this post.
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Living with a toddler who won’t go to sleep by himself
Child sleep is such a thorny subject – with big emotions attached. Before my little boy learned to go to sleep independently, life in our house was stressful.
With both parents spending time each evening settling small children, our older child got very little time with us. We didn’t get a lot of couple time either.
So we knew we wanted to make a change and teach him to go to bed independently – but we didn’t know how. Any time we tried leaving the room before he was fast asleep, he burst into pitiful cries.
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This made all the difference to my son’s bedtimes
So, before I got round to seriously sleep training my son, we had friends come to stay.
What I learned from the mum (let’s call her Karen) in a couple of days – without even trying – turned out to be the key to getting our toddler son going to sleep by himself EASILY. It’s been a breeze ever since.
Here’s what happened – I’ve included the strategies we used and my take-aways.
No more falling asleep next to mama
One evening when we had another family staying with us, my partner took our eldest to football practice as usual. This left me with our toddler son and baby daughter to settle for the night.
On football nights I typically took both little ones into bed and lay there nursing the baby while my boy went to sleep beside us. It worked pretty well but I was sure my son was ready to be going to bed like a big boy i.e. by himself.
So when Karen offered to put my son to bed for me since she was settling her own two kids anyway, I was sceptical. I worried that he would cry I wouldn’t be able to go to him because I’d be busy with the baby. Also, I knew that she would put him in his bed and say good night to him and that would be that.
This was going to be a huge routine shift but I decided it was worth a try so I kissed him goodnight and took the baby off to bed.
1. Have a consistent bedtime routine
As I lay in my room nursing the baby to sleep, I could hear everything that was happening elsewhere in the house. I heard the three little ones getting ready for bed. They put their pyjamas on, brushed their teeth and then settled down to listen to stories with Karen.
We were already in a routine for bedtime which we found really helped us get the little ones off to bed earlier – even though they were not going to sleep independently. You can read about our bedtime routine here.
Even a routine as simple as:
- drink / snack
- story & songs
will really help your child wind down from the day and be ready to going to bed.
When I’m trying to implement any new routines, I find it really helpful to keep a record of what we do and the results. I definitely think it could be a way to troubleshoot a toddler’s sleep so I created a selection of sleep trackers to note how each night went.
You can get a link to the downloadable tracker files below.
2. Talk to your child about bedtime using their personal motivators
Next, Karen tucked her children in in their room and took my son along to his room. That room’s right opposite mine so I could hear them very clearly.
Karen talked to my little boy gently about what was going to happen, telling him that she would read him a story and then tuck him in and say goodnight, as she had done with her own son and daughter.
Of course, he wasn’t very happy about it and began to get upset. It was now that Karen did something really smart – she tapped into what mattered to him.
He absolutely loved superheroes at the time, so she told him that he was a superhero and superheroes go to sleep by themselves.
He seemed to really love that idea and it calmed him right down.
Think about what might motivate your child? Whatever their current obsession, be it teddy bears, dinosaurs or a TV show, you could probably use it to encourage your child to be more independent.
3. Let your child have a favourite toy in bed
Once he was calm and accepting of the idea of going to sleep alone, he got into bed and she told him he could play with his toy until he was ready to sleep.
She had allowed him to bring his superhero action figures up to bed with him. Karen later explained that the toys were there to distract him when he was left alone and give him something to do if he wasn’t immediately ready to doze off.
Try leaving your little one with a small toy to play with. This seemed counter-intuitive to me, since I wanted him to go to sleep, not play. With the toy to distract them, your child is less likely to become upset.
4. Promise to return if they’re quiet
Finally, she said goodnight to him and I could hear him begin to get upset again. Once more, she repeated that he was a superhero and he could do this and that he should play with his toys.
Then she told him that she would come back in ten minutes and read him another story if he was quiet.
This was the clincher with my little boy. He loves stories and the promise of one more did the trick. From where I was, I could hear him whine a little but there was no real distress – nothing to make me feel I had to get up and go to him.
The ten minutes passed and I heard the door open again.
Leaving but promising to go back on condition of quiet is very powerful. They want to you to come back and you want quiet so it’s win-win.
5. Go back to your child’s room but listen before entering
He was awake but quiet and she read him the promised story and resettled him using the same techniques. Then she left again with a promise to come back in 10 minutes. This time when came back he was asleep.
So he went to sleep by himself in less than 20 minutes after 18 months of us lying next to him in the dark! I don’t want to think how many hours that was lying on the floor.
If, when you return to your child after 10 minutes there is complete silence and you think they are asleep, wait five minutes more before checking. There’s no point waking a sleepy toddler!
Toddler sleep training, night 2
I heard all this from where I was lying with my baby and wondered why I’d never actually tried – really tried – to get him to go to bed independently.
Now I can see that I lacked confidence because I didn’t know how. Karen knew what to do so it was easy for her. I knew step 1 but not steps 2, 3, 4 and 5.
The next night, it was over to my partner and I. When my partner came home, I told him what happened and he was excited but like me a little sceptical that we could make this work as neither of us like listening to a child cry.
So the next night his dad put our little boy bed. Exactly the same way that Karen are done.
I had explained the strategies to use to keep him contented in his room.
Bedtime strategy list for a toddler
- carry out a familiar and consistent bedtime routine
- talk to him on his level, tapping into what matters to him (superheroes for us)
- leave him with a toy to play with
- promise to return if he’s quiet
- return as promised but listen before entering in case he’s asleep
He cried for a minute so we went back to him and comforted him again just as before. We promised that dad would read one more story in ten minutes if he was quiet. Ten minutes later, he was asleep.
We have continued every night since and it still works. He no longer needs toys in bed and doesn’t get upset at all – or need return visits.
It’s been a revelation.
We held our son back
We lay beside him in the dark for all those hours and that was fine with us because it was the choice we made.
But I’m sure now that we actually held him back and he could have been going to bed alone sooner if we had known how to teach him.
Supported sleep training works best
For me, my friend Karen was the support I needed to go through with toddler sleep training – and to know how to do it painlessly.
She stayed a few more days and when we were unsure of what we were doing, she was on hand to advise. When I had tried before to get him to sleep alone, I always gave in when he cried because I didn’t know how to settle him.
As a mum who had been there and done it, Karen had tried and true strategies and they worked so well for us and our son. Because she was there, I knew how to respond when my son got upset and get him calm and settled quickly and easily.
By the time she and her family left, our new routine was embedded and we felt confident in responding to whatever arose at bedtime.
How this can help you get your toddler to sleep alone
If you are struggling to get a toddler to sleep alone, I really believe this method will help you. Apply these five strategies:
- Embed a consistent bedtime routine
- Talk to your child about bedtime, tapping into what matters to them
- Leave them with a toy to play with
- Promise to return if they are quiet
- Return as promised but listen before entering in case they’re asleep
Be consistent and don’t give up and go back to your old routine. But that can be hard, so you might need support.
Support for your sleep training journey
Do you have a friend or mum who could support you? Even if they can’t come to stay, maybe they could provide phone support.
If there is someone in your life who has similar values in their parenting and whom you could turn to, ask them for help. You need to be able to ask for tips or simply communicate what’s happening when you feel unsure of your choices.
That reassurance and advice could be the difference between success and failure.
Try this supported sleep training program
If you don’t have someone to reach out to, and your child is 5-24 months old, 21 Days to Peace and Quiet is exactly what you need.
If you know you want to sleep train gently but you need a system, creator Jilly has you covered.
And on those nights when you don’t know what you’re doing wrong, she will be there to support you throughout your 3 week program via text and live calls.
That’s what’s different about this program – she tells you what to do but then sticks around to help you implement the program. And there’s a money-back guarantee. Check out 21 Days to Peace and Quiet here.
I’m working my way through it with my 16 month old daughter right now – I can’t take another year of lying in the dark until she falls asleep! Check back soon for a review post – or ask me any questions you have about the program.
Ready to get started?
Download your printable sleep trackers below to help you keep track of your child’s routine and sleep pattern.
You’ll can see at a glance what you have done and the results in terms of when your child went to sleep and for how long. Then you can use that information to make adjustments or fix on a routine that’s working.
Good luck, mom or dad!
This baby and toddler sleep thing is tough. Make a plan, stick to it and keep a record to see how far you’ve come.
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