Teaching Toddlers to Sleep Alone


Not getting enough sleep could cause other issues with toddlers such as tantrums, meltdowns, irritability. When it comes to falling asleep, sleeping habits are really important and the earlier the parents start establishing them, the better for the whole family. 

Toddlers’ Sleep Associations

sleep association is anything that a person connects with going to sleep. For toddlers it could be an object like a blanketdoll or stuffed animal. It could as well be an action such as nursingcaressing or holding hands. If a toddler is used to falling asleep with a pacifier or bottle or being rocked to sleep, they will make that association every time at bedtime and would expect things to happen exactly this way, otherwise they will not be able to fall asleep. Moreover, if they wake up during the night, they will expect the same in order to go back to sleep.

Some sleep associations are healthy and good to establish, such as: a warm bath, brushing teeth, turn the lights off (or low), sing a song, read a bedtime story. Other sleep associations could create issues. A bottle of milk, for example, is ok for a baby but for a toddler it becomes unhealthy considering oral hygiene. Also, as tempting as it might seem, sleeping in your child’s room is most probably affecting your own good night’s sleep which is just as important as your child’s because a tired parent is not well prepared for a day with a toddler or a day at work, not to mention that it also affects the relationship between both parents which inevitably reflects on the child. If the child is accustomed to nursing or rockingin the middle of the night, they will expect it for soothing and comfort when they wake up. If this is the case, the best thing to do is to break the negative sleep association. If you still feel the need to nurse your toddler, it is fine, just find another time and another place for it, not at bedtime and not in the child’s bedroom, and put them in bed awake, so that they can fall asleep on their own. If they fall asleep by themselves, they are less likely to wake up in the middle of the night, looking for someone to comfort them.

Fixing Negative Sleep Associations

Fixing a toddler’s sleep problem is not easy, but it’s not impossible. The most important thing is to have all the adults on the same page, considering the child’s sleeping routine. Keep in mind that the parent is the one in charge, i.e. responsible for the successful outcome, not the child. As strange as it might seem, children are not born with the ability to fall asleep on their own and it is up to the parents to teach them that for the well-being of the entire family. The parent is the one setting the boundaries and he must be prepared to maintain them. How? Make a plan and implement it consistently. 

Getting a Child to Sleep Alone

So you have decided that it is time for your toddler to go to sleep alone in their own bed. That’s good. You have made the first step towards your child’s nighttime independence. Be prepared that it won’t be easy, you will need to be firm and teach your child to respect the boundaries you have set. There are some tips that may help:

  • Prepare your child for the change.
  • Prepare the sleeping space.
  • Set a regular time for going to bed.
  • Set up a bedtime routine and stick to it.
  • Define the boundaries and don’t step back.
  • Chase away the fears.
  • Grant your child the right to choose.

Prepare the child for the change

Talk about it in advance. Assure your child that you believe that they have grown up a lot and they will manage to fall asleep alone in their own bed. Toddlers in general love feeling grown up. They are flattered when you give them more responsibilities because this way you admit that they are not babies anymore. Put your toddler in charge of their room. Tell them that sleeping alone is something important and they must take it really seriously. Assure them that you believethey have the courage to do it and also that you will be close by if they need you. 

Prepare the sleeping space

Make it exciting for your child. It is actually easy. Start with being excited yourself. Don’t worry that it is too hard for your child and they won’t manage and they will be sad and lonely and things like that. These are all your fears, spare your child. After you have talked about sleeping alone, it’s time to set the site for it. This is a huge change for your child and it should be a change in every aspect. You can’t expect to just move the child to another room (or bed) and that would do the trick. Prepare for it. Go to the room and talk about it with your child. Make a plan together. Tell them, for example, “I think that bed needs new sheets. Would you like us to go to the shop and find the most beautiful sheets?” You can also change the curtains in the room. Let your imagination fly, make it exciting, let your child feel happy and proud of their new room

Set a regular time for going to bed

Usually toddlers go to bed between 7 and 9 p.m. Children are different and some need more sleep than others but generally 12-14 hours a day is what a toddler needs. This includes the afternoon nap. So if the toddler doesn’t nap during the they, going to bed around 7 p.m. is fine. If they nap, then going to bed at 7 p.m. might be too early and won’t be favorable for falling asleep. The best thing you can do is observe your child for signs of sleepiness and comply the time for going to bed with this. Once you have noticed a pattern, set this time as regular and stick to it. Have in mind that if they miss the time to go to bed (the time when they start feeling sleepy), toddlers might become overexcited, uneasy or cranky and putting them in bed could become even harder.  

Set up a bedtime routine and stick to it

Have a predictable bedtime routine so that the child would know exactly what follows and wouldn’t feel confused, therefore distressed. Don’t make it too long, it shouldn’t be perceived as a game. About half an hour is enough. A good bedtime routine could be: using the toilet/potty  taking a warm bath/shower  brushing teeth  putting on pajamas  reading a story/singing a song. After you have completed all the bedtime rituals, say “goodnight” and leave. 

Define the boundaries and don’t step back

Make it clear that playtime is over and now it is time to sleep. Be sure that the child understands the importance of staying in bed. If your toddler is uneasy or cries as you are leaving, verbally reassure them that you’re just in the other room, the door is open and you can hear them all the time but that they have to stay in bed. If your toddler gets out of bed, then you must take their hand and lead them back to bed. And if this is not working, you must physically put them back in bed. Do this without talking or arguing. Your toddler will hear your tone rather than your words, so avoid raising the pitch of your voice or speaking faster. Keep your tone reassuring and your face relaxed. At this point the toddler understands that staying in bed is essential but as toddlers are, they might want to test your boundaries, just to make sure that you are not stepping back. If the toddler keeps going out of bed, keep taking them back, calmly and quietly, until they stay. There is no need to scold them. Talk quietly and be firm

If the child needs some extra reassurance you can tell them that you will check on them from time to time. You don’t need to respond to every cry. It is much better to go regularly and just peek in so that the child would be able to see you and feel safe, not abandoned. You can start by checking every minute or two and prolong the intervals until your visits are not needed anymore. 

Remain calm but persistentIf your toddler wouldn’t even let you go out of the room but follows you out of bed immediately, take them back to their bed and sit on the floor or a chair in their room. Choose a position close to the bed, so that the toddler would be able to see and sense your presence and for you to be able to put them back to bed, if needed. The most important thing is to have the toddler in bed and you – out of their bed. Don’t be tempted to sit on the bed “just this once” and make sure that the toddler understands that you will sit close by and they must remain in bed. Say it once and don’t do any more talking. Do not fall asleep on the floor in their room. When the toddler is asleep, leave the room.

Chase away the fears

At some point you will have to face “the monsters under the bed”. It could be anything – a ghost; a skeleton; a scary person coming to take your child away; a stranger coming to take you away; a dog; a predator bird… Children have vivid imagination. They are really scared of those things, they are not just pretending so that you would stay and guard them. They need you to chase away all the scary things and “don’t be silly, there are no such things like ghosts” is totally not going to work. On the contrary – it will do double harm because the child will be still afraid of the ghost and in addition to that they will feel betrayed because you are diminishing their fear instead of being on their side. Instead of not believing in monsters, go to the shop (alone) and buy a “Monster spray”. It’s easy – just pour some water in a spray bottle and make a label with a scared monster inside a red circle. Spray the bed or the whole room with it and now you are completely sure that no monsters can enter this room. Improvise with the picture according to your child’s fears. The child is safe and happy. Be creative. There is always a way. 

Grant your child the right to choose 

Let them choose the book, the song, the toy to sleep with. Allowing children to make choices at bedtime helps them feel as if they are somehow in control of the situation. Toddlers really want to be independent and to make themselves heard. If you respect their need to be important and grant them the right to be an actual part of all this, instead of just being a marionette in your hands, it could prevent an outburst of disagreement when it comes to going to sleep. Keep in mind that the child can choose what to sleep with but not when or whether they are going to bed. The choice must be controlled. 

Teaching children to sleep on their own is not easy but have in mind that the first week is going to be the hardest. If done consistently, it shouldn’t take more than two to three weeks for the new sleeping habit to become established.

Dealing with crying

When you are trying to break an unhealthy sleep association, your child may cry. Everything is fine, as long as you are consistentpresent and responsiveComfort your child when they cry. Your toddler can “hear” your actions more that they can hear your words. Assure them that you are nearby, they are safe and everything is fine. You know that they are safe in their room so the best you can do is to remain calm so that the child can feel it, too. The most important thing is to make it as short as possible – don’t spend the evening convincing them not to cry. Give them a hug, a kiss, wish them goodnight and leave the room. You might need to repeat it many times. Do it calmly and be sure that you are doing the best for your child.

Touching your strings

The child might try to bring tears in your eyes, telling you how much they love you or how much they will miss you.Assure them that you love them just as much but don’t tell them that you will miss them because they might be confused. If you will miss them, then why are you leaving them and going away? Instead, reassure them that they are safe and you are close by and you can hear them all the time. If the child is still not convinced, you can hang a picture of yourself (or you and the child) on the wall next to the bed, so that the child can see it any time and feel somehow closer to you. 

Co-sleeping

In case your child co-sleeps with you, you will have a longer way to go. Since the child is used to physical contact while falling asleep, you will need to decrease it gradually. You can start by cuddling your child until they fall asleep. Then move on to the next step – place only your hand on their back until they fall asleep. Then hold their hand. And then comes the hard part – move away from them and be in the room but not touching them until they fall asleep. Take a chair, sit close to the bed and every evening move the chair one step closer to the door. Then go out of the room (don’t close the door), assuring the child that you are right there and you can hear them all the time. Just remember – be consistentOnce you are out of the bed, don’t go back in. Your child might be unhappy and it would most probably break your heart but it is just a matter of some weeks and deep inside you know that this is the best thing, both for you and for them. If the child feels lonely, give them a stuffed animal to cuddle and help them find comfort in in, instead of in you.  

Some additional help

Be sure to take moments during the day to talk about it with your child. Offer them lots of daytime cuddles and love. Tell them how proud you are each time they take a step toward sleeping on their own.

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