Sleep deprivation: a term all parents are familiar with. For my husband and me, the first six months after our son was born were especially grueling. Then we sleep trained him, and just like that, everyone in the house was getting glorious, fundamental rest. For the next two-and-a-half years, our son slept through the night despite colds, teething, daylight saving time adjustments and—impressively—two moves to different states within a year.
However, a few months ago, my husband and I decided to take a trip to Europe for nine days. We set off on this venture alone (the nerve!). We came back to find our son out of sync with his normal sleep routines. He was waking up in the thick of night needing someone to stay near his bed, rubbing his back until he finally fell asleep. No one was getting good rest anymore, and it left all three of us tired and miserable. We had become a family of zombies—really crabby ones.
One evening, after a record 90-minute back-rubbing session, my husband and I decided we needed to get back on the sleep-training wagon. But how do you help older kids shake poor sleep habits? Especially when they’re out of cribs and have the vocabulary to protest the bedtime rules? These tips helped us retrain our son and hopefully will get your toddler back to bed at night and waking up rested:
- Make a bedtime family plan. Children need to know what to expect, otherwise they end up confused and will protest the changes more, says Alice Callahan, Ph.D., a parenting blogger and former scientist based in Eugene, Oregon. “Parents should sit down together to make a plan they feel comfortable with,” she says. Both parents need to agree on the strategy in order to avoid second-guessing and confusion in the middle of carrying it out. “Talk through the plan with your child before setting it in motion.”
- Good timing. Before making any adjustments to your child’s sleep routines, be sure the family calendar is clear of other events and disruptions like a visit from Grandma, travel, child-care changes, etc., Callahan says. A good idea is to begin your new plan on the weekend. “Don’t start sleep learning if your child is already working on another important new skill like potty training, or if they are going through a period of separation anxiety.”
- Take it step by step. “A few hours before bedtime, walk your child through a mock version of your bedtime routine,” says Jennifer Waldburger, LCSW, cocreator of the book and DVD The Sleepeasy Solution. “Show her where you’ll be sleeping (in your bed), and remind her of what will happen if she gets up (you’ll help her back to her own bed, but there won’t be any more talking after lights out).” Now it’s showtime. Here’s a step-by-step example for retraining:
- Go about your usual bedtime routine (bath, bedtime stories, songs or prayers, etc.).
- Tuck your child in and say good night. “Go ahead and leave the room, even if she’s used to you staying longer,” Waldburger advises. “This will be hard on the first night. Take a deep breath and stay strong!”
- When your child inevitably gets out of bed, calmly walk her back to her own bed, Waldburger says. “The first time only, calmly say: ‘Oopsie, sweetie, you got out of bed. Let Mom (or Dad) help you back!’ Avoid any back-and-forth negotiation or re-explaining why you’re doing what you’re doing.”
- Without talking, continue walking her back each subsequent time she gets out of bed, Waldburger says. “The more uneventful getting out of bed is for her—meaning no reaction or engagement from you—the faster she’ll fall asleep.”
- It may take a little while that first night, but after she’s gone to sleep, pat yourself on the back. You did it! Waldburger suggests giving your child encouragement in the morning too. “Say something like: ‘You’re learning how to sleep in your bed, Honey. We know how hard you’re trying!’”
We followed these steps and stayed consistent. By the third night, we had our dream sleeper back. And the words “good night” were actually true.