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Encouraging more independent sleep for toddlers

It is very normal, and developmentally appropriate, for young children to want a parent to stay with them right up to the point that they fall asleep. Basically up to the point where they can read a book to themselves! Many many families do this and enjoy it - including my own. It’s not a problem if it’s not a problem for you.

So my first question always when trying to change something that is developmentally expected is - why? If bedtime was a 10-20 minute process that felt relaxing for you (eg lying and cuddling, telling stories or listening to audio books) might you be up for that? If bedtime is really long or a battle, there will be reasons behind that which you could perhaps address. This would meet your own need for more time, and your child’s need for your closeness.

I also think there’s an important piece about developmentally-appropriate expectations here: I wouldn’t ever encourage parents to “teach” babies anything in the hopes of them doing more self-settling. I’d simply encourage parents to help babies feel as relaxed and supported as they need to, safe in the knowledge that they would internalise this security. But as toddlers grow older, there is more capacity to begin to sleep more independently, if that is something that parents want.

If more independent sleep is a goal for you as parents (and it isn’t for all parents!) we can both commit to supporting our children AND work to increase their toolkit for feeling safer and more secure while they are alone, in the hope of moving towards more independent sleep when they are ready.

Firstly we want to focus on increasing a sense of connection during the day, and maintaining connection overnight. Many of these ideas come from Lyndsey Hookway’s brilliant book “Still Awake” which I really recommend to parents of toddlers and older children.

Some ideas to explore:

  • Focus on having some 1:1 undistracted, child-led play every day if you can. Even 10 or 15 minutes will help.

  • Give them something of yours to wear at night or to look after at night. A t shirt you’ve already worn will smell like you, which is great.

  • Does your child have a special toy? You can ask him to take care of it overnight - “what do you think Teddy might need if he wakes up in the night and is scared? Can you give him a cuddle and help him feel safer?”

  • Put photos of their special people up around their bed.

  • “The ribbon trick” - get a long ribbon (they can help you choose it) and let them hold it in their bed while you slowly walk out and to your own room (or outside the door if your room is too far). Show them how you are connected even if you aren’t right there. You can read the book “The invisible String” by Patrice Karst alongside this which works really well as a combination.

  • Bridge the gap in connection. When they go to bed, talk about what you are looking forward to doing in the morning.

  • You can practise “popping out” for a minute or two during bedtime, and then returning. This is not about expanding their tolerance or testing them, but building up their confidence that you will always return. Increase the frequency and duration of these pop outs (always within their comfort zone - return immediately if they become distressed) and you may find that eventually they start dropping off while you’re out of the room.

Alongside topping up their sense of connection before bed, you can also model and teach strategies to help them relax if and when they wake alone in the night. Remember that the goal when helping anyone get to sleep is not to get them to sleep, but to help them relax. You might start by introducing some of these ideas at bed time, or you could do them together at night when they ask for your help. Some strategies you might explore:

Guided body scan: Talk your little one through each part of their body, from their head to their toes, and encourage them to relax each part in turn.

Counting: once toddlers are counting confidently, you can use counting to distract and quiet the mind. My little boy told me the other day that if he can’t sleep at night but he doesn’t need us, he strokes his fingers one by one and counts them. This isn’t something I came up with; he did it spontaneously. And I think it’s genius!

Bubble breathing: in the daytime, practice bubble breathing with them. Breath in through your nose then breathe out slowly through your mouth as if you were trying to gently blow bubbles. Encourage them to breathe this way and maybe add counting too, if they are counting confidently.

Remembering a happy day: encourage your little one to remember a happy day they had recently. You could recount it for them to start off with, and then encourage them to practise thinking about it themselves.

Imagining a magic place: for little ones with more vivid or absurd imaginations, you could encourage them to imagine a magical place. Encourage them to go into lots of detail about what they can see, hear, smell, touch and taste.

I hope that some of these ideas are useful in your family. Here's to more restful nights!

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