Teach your preschooler to fall asleep alone in four easy steps

Do you lie with your child at night until they’re asleep?

I did too.

With this little guy – for a very long time.

This picture was taken a little while after we stopped – and this post is about HOW we stopped – how we went from lying beside him to tucking him in, saying goodnight and leaving.

how to train child to fall asleep alone

It’s frustrating when your child can’t fall asleep alone

I never wanted him to cry at bedtime so after nursing and rocking to sleep as a baby, we ended up lying beside him until he was nearly three. 

And I know now that lots of moms and dads do it for much longer.

Honestly, we were fine with it for quite a long while.

He needed us and we liked being there for him and giving him what he needed.

After all, it’s natural for a little kid to want to be close to mom or dad and loads of parents do it.

But it got so that I wondered where it was going to end.

We had a new baby and I felt like I couldn’t stand to lie in the dark for half the evening for another three years.

Lying with your child at night is fine if it’s working for you

Lying in the dark was taking forever.

It didn’t in the beginning. He used to doze off pretty fast knowing we were there – but now it often took hours.

He’d want to chat and take a bit of settling and then I’d be lying there, wondering if that was sleep-breathing I could hear.

Trying to ninja out of the room only to see those big eyes looking at me in the dark and have to slink back to my spot and lay down again.

Often, I dozed off too and woke up again at ten or half ten with bed hair and a foggy head.

So I didn’t really feel like lying with my child at bedtime was working for me anymore.

He was fine with it – but me? Not so much.

But how do you teach a child to fall asleep without you?

So those bedtime snuggles were becoming a problem.

But we just didn’t know how to move on – how to get our son to that point where he didn’t need us at bedtime any longer and could snuggle up and go to sleep happily on his own.

It seemed so far away.

I could see it was possible – most older kids do it, right? – but I didn’t know how to make that change.

What could I do to help my child fall asleep alone without crying?

It seemed like such a simple thing – like it should be obvious.

But it wasn’t.

And the only suggestion anyone seemed to have was that we should suck it up and let him cry.

teach child to fall asleep alone

 

But what about crying?

I didn’t want to let my child cry to sleep.

Lots of people do it – but it felt like the wrong thing for us and so here we were with a nearly 3 year old who couldn’t fall asleep alone.

But this is where I wasn’t connecting the dots up right – crying it out’s a method for babies – not preschoolers.

We sometimes forget that babies cry to communicate  – because they can’t do it any other way.

But your child’s not a baby any longer.

Now that they’re not a baby, they can do stuff that babies can’t. 

This might seem super obvious – but not many people talk about this and it’s really important.

You don’t need to make a preschooler cry themselves to sleep because they can talk and they can listen and that opens up so many possibilities for PARENTING them through the whole thing.

Yep – this method of teaching a child to fall asleep alone is just basic, solid, loving parenting.

Doesn’t that sound like something you could do?

I know it is – but I had to learn it too – because back then I was still in the mindset that I had to either lie with him or let him cry.

And then I found out that there’s another way entirely.

Your child’s big enough to talk – big enough to tell you what’s wrong and what they need.

Even if sometimes it doesn’t make sense.

This is so huge.

It’s huge because if you can influence your child by talking to them now, then there’s no reason to do any kind of crying approach when you teach them to fall asleep without you.

You don’t need to sleep train them or ‘train’ them in any way.

All you need to do is the kind of parenting that probably comes naturally to you anyway.

Showing, explaining, guiding and reassuring.

Stuff you do all the time during the day, right?

But back when I was lying beside my son every night to get him to sleep, I hadn’t figured that out yet.

I still thought it was either his needs or my needs.

Let him cry so I could get my evening – or lie with him so he could fall asleep without crying.

Which is where I was at when a friend kindly offered to put him to bed for me.

Here’s how that happened.

The turning point – what actually worked

So, with the baby to put to bed too, I was dying to find a solution to help my boy learn to fall asleep alone.

If daddy wasn’t there, I took both kids into my bed and lay with them until they were asleep.

And right then – right when I had decided I could not take any more and would have to do a crying method – right then my friend Karen came to visit.

I saw that Karen’s kids went to sleep by themselves. 

Karen just tucked them in and said goodnight – and there was no drama.

I was impressed and wondered how she did it.

So I told my friend about our bedtimes and about how I hated the idea of letting him cry but figured I was gonna have to.

And Karen said, “Don’t do that. You don’t need to do that. Let me show you how I put my kids to bed.”

preschooler sleep problems

A different approach to getting your preschooler to sleep

I admit that the whole thing made me anxious.

Sure – this was what I wanted for him – but it was hard to jump in right away like that.

So I was nervous as I kissed him goodnight and let him go to bed with Karen and her kids.

What if he cried and I was still nursing the baby and couldn’t go to him?

Would it really work?

How would she handle his objections?

And, of course, she handled them just fine  – or I wouldn’t be writing this now – because what she did changed our lives.

And when I thought about it after she left, I realised it boils down to four steps.

Preparing your child.

Explaining what’s happening.

Help them feel secure.

Supporting them.

None of them involve any crying.

All of them involve talking to your child and being an emotional support for them as they learn something new.

But what does that look like?

Let’s talk strategies

I know you’re just SO ready for your child to be able to fall asleep without you.

So ready. Because I was too – but you’re wondering…

What if they cry?

What if they don’t want to?

What am I supposed to say to my child to make this happen?

So let’s take a closer look at each step and how it helps and supports both you and your child on this journey to falling asleep alone…

What are the four steps for getting a kid to go to sleep alone?

My friend Karen had offered to put my kiddo to bed for me – but he was used to someone lying with him and she wasn’t going to do that.

So what would she do instead to get him to sleep without tears?

I heard everything my friend did that evening – our walls are thin – and it wasn’t super different to what we were doing anyway.

But the little changes had a big impact.

#1  Bedtime routine every day

First, she got all the kids ready for bed – her two and my little guy who was a few months younger.

It was just what we were doing already every night.

Pajamas, stories, toothbrushing – the bedtime routine’s super important for getting kids ready to sleep.

Actually, the way the whole day goes is important – and if you have a hard time getting your kid to sleep at night, switching up your daily habits and routines can make a big difference. 

Then, once they were ready to get into bed and stories were all done, they had a chat about what bedtime was going to look like.

#2  Discuss bedtime expectations

Yes. Talk to your child about bedtime and what’s gonna happen tonight.

I mean – if you just put them in bed and walk out the door most kids are not gonna be happy about that if lying with them is your normal.

So preparation matters.

It’s not a sit-down meeting – just the way you always talk to your kiddo about new things. 

And this is the part you can’t do with a baby – because you’ll actually talk to your child and if it’s going to work they need to be old enough to understand. 

This step’s about motivating your child and making them feel like they can DO it.

So my friend told my little guy that he was going to bed by himself and talked him into being okay with that.

#3  Make them feel happy and secure

And then she got him into bed and helped him to feel secure – so he wouldn’t be upset. 

It’s a good idea to have your little one feeling happy and relaxed before you leave – because if they’re already anxious then tears are pretty much guaranteed. 

If they’re warm and comfy, and they understand what’s going on and where you’ll be, you have a much better chance of success.

And then it was time to leave him alone – but she didn’t go totally away.

(Maybe you’d like to head straight for the sofa, but hold tight – that’s coming very soon once they get used to this new style of bedtimes.)

So for now, let’s talk about how to support your child once they’re in bed and you leave them.

#4  Support them to go to sleep alone

Yes, you’re leaving them alone to go to sleep – but that doesn’t mean you’re not gonna support them.

She didn’t leave him alone.

Well – she left him alone in the room but she was still there outside the door – because he wasn’t ready to fly solo yet and your kid likely won’t be either.

So let your child know where you’ll be – and make it close by. Right outside or the room opposite.

Be ready to give a quick ‘Shush,’ if they start to get upset – often that’s all it takes and it’s way less disturbing than going back into the room. You’re letting them know that you’re there and everything’s okay.

Even go back in after a bit for one more hug.

They have to go to sleep in their room alone but that doesn’t mean you can’t be there for them – just in a different way now because they’re getting bigger.

So what happened next?

He went to sleep in about ten minutes.

I couldn’t believe it, lying next door with my baby daughter. I had worried that he’d cry and I’d have to jump up and leave her and then she’d cry too and…

But nothing. He grumped a little and Karen handled it.

And we never looked back.

I remember how proud I felt that night – and the next night when I did all those steps with him myself and he went to sleep happily again.

The hopeless feeling that I couldn’t make any progress with his bedtimes was gone – and I didn’t have to compromise and do stuff that felt wrong to me.

It sounds super simple

And it is.

Those four steps worked for my little guy – and then my daughter once she got big enough.

And if you’re thinking you want to start tonight then I’d recommend having a think about those four steps and what you might say and do at each stage.

What do you say to them when you want to motivate them or encourage them to do something new? How can you tap into that to make bedtime changes?

And if it’s not easy right away, that’s okay.

Keep trying for a few nights – and then wait a while and try again if you need to. 

Good luck.

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26 thoughts on “Teach your preschooler to fall asleep alone in four easy steps”

  1. Glad I stumble on your site. It gives me new insight as I’ve always need to lay next to my 15 months old until he fall asleep and repeat it each time he wakes up in the middle of the night. Your idea sounds good, however, i can’t say to a 15 months that i will come back in 10 minutes. He doesn’t understand that yet! Any idea what I can do before he burst into tears when I close the door? I’ve tried so many lovey, toys but he has held my boobs as his comforter. Even if it’s not for feeding, he still likes to touch it until he fall asleep. Nothing seems to replace it. Any recommendations?

    • Hi Tracy
      You’re right – the age of the toddler really matters! I feel your pain because I’m currently experiencing something similar with my daughter who’s 14 months old and has nursed to sleep all her life.
      I’d love to get her sleeping independently too but it’s tough at this age so I’m trying a very gentle approach.
      Currently, I’ve stopped lying beside her and instead I’m feeding her till she’s sleepy then taking her off the boob and rocking her. Then I put her in her cot when she’s very drowsy and usually she then goes off to sleep while I shush her. It’s not perfect – tonight she was NOT keen! – so I may try a more structured approach once Christmas is over.
      I hope that’s helpful.

  2. Great ideas! My daughter is two and I have a separate pillow for her baby doll so now I tuck her and her baby doll in, give them both kisses, etc and it really seems to work well! ? Good luck everyone! It’s soo hard.

  3. What do you do if the child gets out of bed? This worked for 2 nights but on the 3rd night he got out of bed and came to the living room. I put him back to bed and explained he needed to stay in bed using his motivator saying that Batman would stay in bed when his Mommy told him to. But he has been getting up every night since and this will be day seven.

    • That’s a whole ‘nother post! (which I will get around to) but for right now, if he’s not upset about going to bed alone, I would switch “another story in ten minutes if you are quiet” for “another story in ten minutes if you stay in bed.” And hang around outside the door to catch him and return him ‘like batman’ real quick. Do you think that might work?

  4. This is such an ongoing thing for us! We get into a groove and then a day or weekend off feels like backsliding. We had a very dependent toddler sleeper for over 2 years and he has just recently gained some independence.. much of that is probably the arrival of his baby sister and the need for a bit more self-direction. Thanks for addressing this tough topic!

  5. I just wanted to let you know that this post changed our lives. We had the same problem and this method totally worked when everything else didn’t! Thank you so much for sharing your story!

    • Oh wow! I’m so glad it helped you – it was life changing for us too. Thanks for reaching out.

  6. You’re advice was seriously a god send for us! Our 3 year old fell asleep the first night trying these steps. Seriously, thank you!!

  7. I am going to try this with my very stubborn nearly 4 year old from tomorrow night. I am so tired of sitting on her floor all hours of the night behind her door where she cant see me until she falls back to sleep. She has never been a good sleeper but upto a month ago I could just pop my head in her room when she woke on a night and tell her to go back to sleep…now she screams the place down if I try to leave. So tomorrow I will try this because I have been trying all different techniques

  8. How can I do this for a much older child? My sone is 8, and he’s slept with a sibling his whole life. The new house has his own bedroom, and I can’t get him to calm down to sleep in just a few minutes without a lot of trouble.

    • Hey, So he’s 8 and finding it hard to adjust to a new room of his own? Hmm. 8 is pretty big but not so big you can’t get him onboard with ways to make bedtime fun. What if he picked out a nightlight or created a special secret routine that’s only for him and you? And I think I’d talk to him about how bedtime is going and ask how he feels. I also find that promising to come back if they’re quiet and in bed for another story or hug is effective with older kids.

  9. My toddler loved her bed, as a baby she put her self to sleep. Now, at 2 1/2 she only wants in my bed, thanks to my husband, (he works in oilfield is always gone, so he spoils her and lets her in the bed. This has caused her to not want in her bed.) Or she wants me to rock her. I have tried laying in her bed with her or making her go to sleep in her bed, but she just gets up and walks out the room usually crying and upset. it takes her 1 – 1/2 hours of no light no tv – to go to sleep. What do I do if she comes out of her bed? I know my daughter, she’s going to throw a tantrum about this (which she doesn’t throw a tantrum often.) Should I keep the 1 hour bedtime routine in her room or can it be in living room.

    • Hey Stephanie, you know, I just had this same thing with my own 2.5 year old. She did NOT want to stay in bed tonight, and I’m trying to keep my cool at all times lol so here’s what I did: put her back in bed multiple times, gave her a choice of toys and a choice of blankets (to give her a feeling of control), cuddled her and talked about tomorrow and what she wants to do, kept calmly and quietly repeating that she needed to lie down and not kick the covers off and promised to come back soon for hugs if she stayed in bed. After a couple of false starts, she did. I often find with getting her to stay in bed that getting her to snuggle and take care of her lovey helps. Like, “teddy’s cold – can you keep him warm,” or something like that. And sometimes if that doesn’t work, it DOES when I try it again five minutes later. Be strong momma!

  10. Hello. I’m very excited to try this. It’s after 1am an my son jus went to sleep at 12:45. So tired of goin to bed so late. He’s 2&1/2. But confused if it’ll work or how to go about it cause since he was a baby I put him to sleep on the couch with a side light on an tv low, next to me. An moving him after he falls asleep to his bed. An he still has a crib an at the moment he don’t like goin in there when he’s awake. We made the mistake One time when he had a big fit of puttin him in there to calm down. We haven’t done it again but he don’t like goin in there to go to sleep. I tried for alil at one point. Stayed there wit him an he cried but I talked to him an rubbed his back an couple times he fell asleep. But then Other nites, he’d jus stand up. An he don’t have a lovely. Could try his bunny or Mickey? Think this way still work? Be complete change up. Sorry so long.

    • Hey Nicole, I remember those days of letting my baby fall asleep on me or next to me then busting some ninja moves to get him into bed! But your little guy’s two and a half so I’d say start with a bedtime routine that has him going to sleep in his bed. A bath or wash, books, songs, toothbrushing and into bed. You can lay with him if you like to ease him into it then look at weaning him off your presence once he’s okay with sleeping in bed. If he’s in a crib still, you could lie next to the crib and hold his hand until he doesn’t need that any longer. (And I’d even say, since he’s used to falling asleep in the living room, you could try going to sleep in your bed so he’s right next to you to get him used to falling asleep in a bed, not on the sofa.) I think you probably need to get him used to falling asleep in bed first, then start working on falling asleep alone. Let me know how you get on.

  11. I love what I just read and can’t wait to try with my little man. I do have a question, do you think this will work even with our other son (6month old) in the same room? This gave me some hope I can do this

    • Hi Suzie, I’m glad you’re feeling confident – you got this! As for whether it’ll work with baby boy right there, well, what are their temperaments like? Does baby sleep deeply or is he easily woken? If you think he might wake up if your chatting with big brother about the steps etc, maybe move his crib for a week or two? It might not even take that long. (I did that with my two and it worked out fine.) I’d love to know how you get on.

  12. I’m wondering what age you think this method begins to work for. I’m interested, but I think my little one is still too young.

    • That could certainly be the case – you have to be able to influence them during the day for it to work at night. I always say 3+ is best. Good luck 🙂

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