How can we get our 3.5 year old to GO TO SLEEP ON HER OWN?
May 8, 2017 10:38 AM   Subscribe

Since Supercoolkid was a baby, I have always stayed with her until she falls asleep. My husband/her father takes care of her full time, and until recently he did the same with naps. But while he’s been able to make the nap time transition to her going up to her room and falling asleep on her own (she’s even instituted some of the new routines herself) I have NOT been able to make the transition in spite of my efforts. I’m seeking your advice. More inside!

The little girl has always gone to sleep with me next to her. We’ve decided that it’s time to move on from that.

She’s generally really open to new things if we talk about them with her beforehand on a few occasions, and kind of get her on board. That’s what I did with this. It’s a big girl thing to do; she’s really brave; and when she goes to sleep on her own, that weekend we’ll go on a special date to get cake!

We also decided that as per our usual practice with her, we wouldn’t force anything. She does much better with stuff when she comes to it on her own. So we got her on board, and when she shouted for me, I’d go, and stay for a sec, and then head back out after kisses and goodnights. And if she said “I want to sleep with you!” I would do it.

The first couple weeks, we read one or two books, had kisses, and then turned out the light/turned on the nightlight, and then I went out.

She tried really hard but we always ended up with her falling asleep with me there. No tears, no sadness, she wanted it, she got it. And she was getting better.

But things have turned around. She’s apparently decided that 1. It’s really fun to continually call Mummy into her room and 2. She really doesn’t care about our cake date, or making me proud, or being a big girl. She’s also claiming she’s afraid of the dark and turning the light back on (she is NOT afraid of the dark at naptime, when it is approximately as dark in the room.)

Basically, I’m kind of stuck. We’re really not interested in doing anything that’s going to make her freak out and be totally hysterical and tell her to just suck it up. On the other hand, this needs to happen.

She has no ongoing sleep problems and is generally a very happy, healthy kid.

So your thoughts? Please don’t use this space as a referendum on our sleep training/hygiene decisions.

Thanks in advance!
posted by supercoollady to Human Relations (33 answers total) 11 users marked this as a favorite
We were in a similar situation. My husband did a slow (probably 2 month long) fade away. He moved farther and farther away from her bed until eventually she would go to sleep with just his head was in the room and his body splayed out in the hallway. After that point, he spent a couple nights just sitting outside her room in the hallway.
Maybe the first few weeks (when she managed to go to sleep on her own) was too abrupt of a transition and you need to backtrack a bit?
If nothing else, I'm sorry, kids and sleep is so so brutal.
posted by avocado_of_merriment at 10:51 AM on May 8, 2017 [6 favorites]

We went through this around 1 or 1.5 years old and the way you describe things sounds awfully familiar.

I have NOT been able to make the transition in spite of my efforts.

My wife and I both used to do something like this and wound up treating "The Transition" as though we were defusing a bomb. There was a lot of magical thinking about, "If I just rock her a little bit more/ if I am really quiet leaving the room", etc. My advice is to try to stop thinking about The Transition or what you could do better. We had much more success with a good routine and a clear stop. Something like, "We read two books, go potty and then into bed, turn off the lights, sing one song, then leave." We wound up having to go through two nights of loud protests and that was it.

And the truth is while it's gone awesome, every 6 months or so there's a refresher course, usually around the time of some developmental milestone where her brain is whirring along so much she struggles to get to sleep. So think of this as practice and remember you are not harming your wonderful kid, you're doing what's best for them. They'll be happier, you'll be happier and everyone will get along better if they sleep.
posted by yerfatma at 10:52 AM on May 8, 2017 [13 favorites]

I'm not at this stage yet but reading your question I wonder about getting dad to take over the bedtime routine until he achieves the same effect as he did with naps. For some reason the child responded to his efforts and not yours so that's where I would start.
posted by crunchy potato at 10:53 AM on May 8, 2017 [2 favorites]

Disclaimer: this is an ongoing, current project in my house. My daughter will be 3 this month.

We've been having some luck with a staged approach, as recommended by her daycare. First we switched from me snuggling/nursing kid to sleep to having her dad snuggle her to sleep (we did this for weekend naps first and once that was fine, then bedtime. She naps no problem at daycare). After that was well-established, we're now trying to get her to sleep on her own. Now he is snuggling her for 10 minutes, then he sits in a chair next to her bed for 10 minutes, and then he moves to sitting in the hall outside her room. The first couple of nights she got up every 15 minutes to find him, and then he'd walk her back to bed and put her in and go back to the hall. For two hours. But the third night, last night! she fell asleep 5 minutes into the chair-next-to-the-bed portion of the evening. So things are progressing nicely and there have been no tears at all, at least with this part.

The difference from your approach is that she does still get some snuggles (but they're time limited with a timer) and we're setting firm limits on how it will work as opposed to letting her pick. However, I will caveat this extensively with saying that a. my kid really needs firm limits and b. it has not been long enough to say for sure This Works!!!!. But my kid's daycare provider is super experienced and I trust her advice as it's always been spot-on before.
posted by john_snow at 10:54 AM on May 8, 2017 [2 favorites]

Disclaimer: I don't have children. But I've worked with children with behavioral issues (not your kid, just stating my experience : D)

Would it help to have the reward come in the morning, rather than the weekend? I know you said she doesn't care about the cake, but it could simply be that it's just too far away for her, and therefore not worth the effort.

Is she a visual kid? Would a chart motivate her, with a reward in the morning after getting a sticker or something? After X number of stickers, you could do something fun like go to the zoo, go to the movies, the park, whatever is special to her on the weekend.

About calling you back in her room - she's testing you. I'd set a number (1, 2, 3, whatever you feel comfortable with) and tell her that you'll only come in X times, and after that, it's time for bed. That takes the "game" out of it, and shifts the control back to you. After X times, don't go back (or have your husband go instead). After a couple of weeks, decrease the number. Wait a few more weeks, decrease it again. Eventually, she won't need you to go back.
posted by onecircleaday at 11:19 AM on May 8, 2017 [3 favorites]

Probably not what you want to hear, but my daughter was similar. She wouldn't go to sleep if I was around and could lie down with her, etc. On the other hand, on nights when I'd get home late, she'd have no problem hopping up into my husband's lap, resting her head on his shoulder, and nodding her head when he asked if she was ready for bed. Then he'd get her ready for bed and she'd go to sleep. Easily. And early/normal time for her age.

If I was home, it'd end up being a 60 - 90 minute project. My husband started texting me to stay away if she was getting sleepy so she'd go down. It had something to do with *me* and what she got from my presence that daddy didn't have. Or the Daddy Effect was different from the Mommy Effect on her. Either way, she just went to bed at night for my husband and for me, she would hang on for all she was worth until, on a few occasions, wretched overtired meltdowns ensued. Once we realized this, that's when he started texting me to not come home until she was solidly asleep and my presence wouldn't be a distraction. It worked......

Somewhere around a little older than 4, she got a lot better at just going to bed at bedtime regardless of caregiver. But I couldn't tell you other than getting older what the trigger for that was.
posted by zizzle at 11:33 AM on May 8, 2017 [3 favorites]

We also decided that as per our usual practice with her, we wouldn’t force anything. She does much better with stuff when she comes to it on her own.

Well, there's forcing and there's being a parent. A typical 3.5 year old does not really get how their brains and bodies work and sometimes, parents just need to be the parent and kids don't always get a vote. Honestly, what you're sort of teaching her as a larger issue is that you and her dad may have some ideas about things that are in her best interests (or even your own best interests, like adult sleeping time) but that will take a back seat until she is also onboard with your idea. Kids benefit from a bit of a firmer hand than that.

If you want this to end, you have to be the one to end it. You're right, it isn't easy, but right now you've got a situation where she's agreed to your plan but knows she can get you to do something counter to the plan. All she needs to do is ask.

It may be easiest to have your husband and daughter "teach" you Daddy's Nap Routine and they can show you how it works at night. Make a simple reward system. If she can get you to follow her and Daddy's Special Naptime Routine (i.e. you don't sleep with her), then her reward is _____ in the morning because YAY you got Mommy to do it right!!. If she's training you, you may get a lot more buy in.
posted by yes I said yes I will Yes at 11:35 AM on May 8, 2017 [22 favorites]

We do take a more authoritarian view than you and your hubby, which is not what I'm getting at here at all but did want to mention it for reference. Our daughter has been sleeping by herself basically since she was half way through breastfeeding so we never had to cross the bridge of evicting a coherent, talking person out of our bed.

Sometimes, on cranky days, she still does exhibit behaviors that aren't conducive to going down easy, though this is mostly for nap, not bedtime. One thing I've noticed helping recently is talking to her *beforehand* about how nap/bedtime is going to go down. Like hours ahead of time. She appreciates and benefits from the forewarning as to what's going to happen (as in, if I'm doing naptime or mommy or what). Maybe that'll help you. Good luck.
posted by RolandOfEld at 11:37 AM on May 8, 2017 [4 favorites]

Oh, and obviously, routine is key. We do dinner, play time for a bit, maybe some TV time for a bit as she winds down for bed, 5 minute warning, brush teeth and potty, night night to parent that isn't doing bedtime, night night to doggies and inanimte objects, go up stairs, pick out 2 books to read, read 2 books, tuck in, hug, kiss, night night, close door, done. Without fail.
posted by RolandOfEld at 11:41 AM on May 8, 2017 [5 favorites]

My 4 year old still comes out a million-bajillion times before falling asleep, so what do I know? But, a couple of things that have been helpful for us are a night light (we have this one, which is in her bed, shuts off after 20 minutes and can be easily turned on/off by my child) and listening to some children's meditation "stories" from youtube or Spotify. I have friends who have found success with laying with their child for a while and then finding various reasons to get up. "Mom has to go fold some laundry, I will come back when I'm done" and then coming back 5-10 minutes later, and extending the time or frequency of coming in/out to break the pattern. Sleep is hard! Good luck.
posted by rozee at 11:42 AM on May 8, 2017

My SIL did something similar to avocado of merriment with my nephew. She just slow moved her chair further & further away. Each night a foot or so until she was out of site in the hall & could call back if called to by a nervous child. Then once he stopped calling for her she told him she'd be in the lounge room if he needed her.
posted by wwax at 11:48 AM on May 8, 2017 [1 favorite]

I don't know what you meant, wwax, but "avocado of merriment" will be either my new sockpuppet account or my new mandolin band.

Our daughter had a couple of nightlights, but I think this one really helped to make staying in her bed in the dark normal. It displays a pattern of stars on the surrounding walls and ceiling in different colors, and shuts itself off. We imagined pictures made of the constellations of stars, and made it her special bedtime toy. She slept with it for well over a year, and still has it in her room, three years later.
posted by Emperor SnooKloze at 12:06 PM on May 8, 2017 [1 favorite]

My sense is that no matter what tactic you use, it will be difficult, because your child is three and her brain is hard-wired to resist you. If you go into this with the goal of not upsetting her, you'll fail, because seriously my three year old once ran out of her room screaming because she bit her own arm and it hurt. Threes are just tricky.

As others have mentioned, the first step is a routine, with transitions she can understand. Not "10 minutes," but "When the lullabies end." The graduated approach (also known as the "Sleep Lady Shuffle") has been known to work with toddlers, but it does take time. Another approach is to give her "tickets" that will allow her to call you in, but once she uses them all, you will no longer come in. It doesn't matter what limit you use, really, only that you set a limit, because while your child pushes limits like it's her job, she's also very small and needs you to be in charge.

Or you could wait it out. It won't last forever, and you may miss those cuddles someday. Only do this if you can do so without resentment; if you cannot, it is better to just set the limit.
posted by snickerdoodle at 12:09 PM on May 8, 2017 [4 favorites]

Emperor SnooKloze, the first comment in this thread: "posted by avocado_of_merriment at 12:51 PM on May 8 [3 favorites +] [!]"
posted by vegartanipla at 12:09 PM on May 8, 2017 [1 favorite]

wow. I was just not parsing that at all. Mods, feel free to delete that bit. It's hell, getting old.
posted by Emperor SnooKloze at 12:14 PM on May 8, 2017 [3 favorites]

We did similar to avocado of merriment too, but we did a number of different things so he got used to different ways of parents not laying right next to him. I'd sit next to my kiddo on his bed but not lay down. I'd occasionally put him to bed, need to run a small errand elsewhere in the house (put on my pajamas, get a drink of water), and take a few minutes to get back to his room before I sat with him. For a while I did stretches in his room, so I was nearby. I sat in a rocking chair in his room. I hung out in the hallway. I hung out across the hallway in the guest room. I'd pop in slightly more often than it usually took for him to call for me, so he wouldn't get used to thinking he needed to call for me all the time. He still prefers that I'm on the same floor until he falls asleep, but it's not a requirement, and staying in that part of the house for a few minutes is considerably easier than the process of waiting until he's thoroughly asleep before moving and waking him up and starting all over again.
posted by tchemgrrl at 12:26 PM on May 8, 2017

Another option for reducing call ins is to put two pieces of brightly colored tape on the floor near the door. If she calls you in once, you close the door to the first piece (halfway, say). Second time, door goes to 3/4 closed at the second tape. Third time, door is shut, and you don't come back any more. It's visual, it's easy for kids to understand, and most kids like having their door open to go to sleep.

My tough-bedtime kid isn't afraid of the dark but he goes down easier with a nightlight. No idea why but it helps. (He does fine without it at Grandma's!)
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 12:40 PM on May 8, 2017

on "til the weekend"

When I was in preschool or so, I got in trouble for misusing markers, and I wasn't allowed to use markers for one week. Time passed. At some point we moved to England. When we got there, I asked whether it had been a week yet. It had been long enough that my parents had no idea what I was talking about. That's how I learned that a week has seven days.
posted by aniola at 12:44 PM on May 8, 2017 [11 favorites]

Yeah. The Fadeway, as first described here by avocado_of_merriment worked for us. Well, it worked sort of. We pretty quickly got to the stage where we were sitting on the step outside our kids door and then were stuck there for a good 6-9 months. Well, not a continuous 6-9 months, but every night for 10-60 minutes for 6-9 months.

As all things do with raising children, it eventually got better, but it felt interminable while we were in it. You should be aware that your desire to not force things with her will probably make it go on longer than it may with other families, but I'm sure she'll get their eventually.
posted by Betelgeuse at 12:56 PM on May 8, 2017 [3 favorites]

We used a technique I read here on the green; sorry I don't remember who suggested it.

I put Little One in bed. She asks me to stay. I say, Sure, Baby, but I need to email Grandma/switch out the laundry/other small task, and I'll be back in ten minutes (or five, whatever). Then I go back in after the designated amount of time, kiss her again, say kind words, and without sitting down, give her another task I had to do, back in ten minutes, Sweetie! Repeat until she is asleep. She didn't mind because I was keeping her trust by coming back when I said I would, and I never had to suggest she fall asleep on her own or do without me.

A kid who is old enough to reason with can deal with this method very well. In fact, the next morning, my sharp LO would often accuse me of not coming back the final time, and I'd tell her, " Oh, but I did. You had fallen asleep, silly."
posted by Knowyournuts at 2:30 PM on May 8, 2017 [4 favorites]

(In reality I was watching Netflix with her dad in ten minute snippets.)
posted by Knowyournuts at 2:32 PM on May 8, 2017 [3 favorites]

I successfully transitioned my son to falling asleep alone just before he turned 4. I went from 2-3 hours a night spent in his bed to books, a kiss on the cheek, and turning off the light. There were two things that made the difference. I have no idea if they will work for your child; it was something that, I think, worked on my child's particular psychology.

One was to get a bed tent. I loved them as a kid, and he loves his. It makes his bed into a fun place. Every night, I give him a glow stick and kiss him on the cheek. He can use the glow stick to find his way if he needs to use the toilet, and it's dim enough that I don't think it keeps him up. We got this one, a Pacific Playtent. He also has the ladybug nightlight linked in another comment, and the stars on the tent are beautiful. This was the second thing I did, though.

The first thing we did, that worked wonderfully but may never work for any other child, is that one night I felt myself coming to a breaking point. I told him I was done staying in his room while he went to sleep. He started to cry, and I told him that we could do this the Easy way or the Hard way. I explained how nice the Easy way was, how we would be so happy and cheerful. And then I told him that the Hard way was going to be me putting him back in bed, over and over again, and he would cry, he would hate it, he wouldn't have control, and he wouldn't get a choice. He HATES not having a choice, so playing on that made him choose to go to bed himself. A few nights of reminding him of this new rule, and he got it. I never had to do the hard way.

I know it sounds like something "that’s going to make her freak out and be totally hysterical". And maybe it will, for your kid. I think it worked for me because I was able to make my child see, in language he could understand, just what I would do if nothing else worked, if he didn't try to help. I didn't want that, he didn't want that, so we both made a better solution.
posted by Pacrand at 2:38 PM on May 8, 2017 [4 favorites]

Knowyournuts's approach was pretty successful with my kids. "The no-cry sleep solution for toddlers" book lists a ton of ideas, some of which might be helpful; since each kid is so different, it can be good to have a lot of possibilities thrown at you in order to get a few that work for YOUR situation.
posted by metasarah at 3:02 PM on May 8, 2017

Just one little point - don't tell her she's "being brave" because that might just solidify her belief that there's something scary to overcome.
posted by Samarium at 3:08 PM on May 8, 2017 [7 favorites]

I had to do this with my daughter until she started kindergarten. Once she started school, she decided she was a big girl and didn't need me to fall asleep anymore. And you know, at the time, it was kinda annoying, but she's 15 now and I'm glad we had those extra cuddles.

Now, to actually answer your question, have you tried leaving the light on and shutting it off after she falls asleep? For some reason, my kid has always found this really comforting, and falls asleep with her light on 95% of the time still. Her father or I will just shut it off when we go to bed. Also, the white noise of a fan has also helped her tremendously. She has a ceiling fan in her room now, but in our last place, we had a standing oscillating fan that ran all night, every night.
posted by Ruki at 5:23 PM on May 8, 2017 [1 favorite]

She’s also claiming she’s afraid of the dark and turning the light back on

- Who cares if she turns the light on? If she says "I want the light on!" just be like "OK, good night!". If you come back to turn it off or convince her not to, then she's winning by getting parental-interaction.

- Get a fun nightlight. I got an colour-changing/dimmable LED lightstrip from Amazon (about £15 on a Lightning deal) with a remote control, that let the kid customise their night-time lighting environment. Kid would even sometimes fall asleep with the thing set to disco-strobe mode (rolling-eye-emoji). If he had it on the strobe or really bright I could just go in when he was asleep and change it/dim it/turn it off. You could plug it into a timer if you want it to shut off automatically but LEDs are pretty low power and I don't have an issue with the kid sleeping all night with the nightlight on if they want. If it means they sleep, then that's the goal right?
posted by EndsOfInvention at 1:38 AM on May 9, 2017 [1 favorite]

Despite having multiple nightlights, we also had the "it's too dark" complaint. Keeping the overhead light on wasn't working because it was too bright and she didn't sleep well. We ended up buying a 25W incandescent light bulb for a small lamp and it stays on all night.
posted by bluesapphires at 6:13 AM on May 9, 2017

I don't have a lot of advice except DO IT NOW. It won't get better as she gets older and sleeping with a 12YO in your bed is no fun at all. Not even a little.
posted by dawkins_7 at 10:23 AM on May 9, 2017

We used Weissbluth's timer method.

1. Decide it is time to do it. Mom & dad promise each other to be strong.
2. That night, inform kiddo that we will be in room with her for the duration of the timer. She can choose what to do - stories, books, singing, backrubs, anything except screens. When timer rings, we will be leaving room and she will be staying in bed and going to sleep.
3. Show her timer (we use our phone's) and the sound it makes. (Pick a gentle one obvs.)
4. regular prebedtime routine (meal, bath, jammies, teeth, etc.)
5. Kid into bed. Set timer for 10 or 12 minutes. Do whatever kid wants per 2 above.
6. When timer rings, kiss goodnight and exit.
7. Wait for outraged screams and howls. Hope neighbors do not call cops.
8. Mom/dad sob and alternately hold each other back from going in.
9. If kid exits room (other than to pee, &c) return kid to bed without additional attention.
10. Marvel at volume of screaming. Stay strong.

When we did this it only took one night. The next night she was like "get out of here with your timer" and the 3rd night we started a nice, regular "timer time" routine.
posted by fingersandtoes at 10:41 AM on May 9, 2017 [3 favorites]

Just in case you wanted a demonstration of fingersandtoes's method by a TV show host, the Supernanny talks about it here and a video here. Amplifying fingersandtoes comments, both parents have to be strong and committed to a routine; neither can be a softie! The kid knows who is the softie and applies pressure to him/her. It might take 2-5 days of horrible, then lightens to 2-5 days of bad, eases to 2-3 days of not good, and finally tolerable. You'll have a set back in about a month to not good but as long as both parents are equally committed to the routine, the girl will quit the acceptable behavior.
posted by dlwr300 at 1:01 PM on May 9, 2017 [1 favorite]

I didn't read any of these comments because I still have PTSD from my non-sleeping child, but I want to tell you that he magically started falling asleep without us and SLEEPING THE ENTIRE NIGHT shortly after age 4. Age 3.5 is a shitshow in general, and everything we tried failed spectacularly then, just as it failed when he was a baby. Then we started being able to leave his room before he fell asleep without tears or protest or him wandering out after he turned 4. The official end of naps around age 3.75 made bedtime a million times easier, too.

Sending you strength and solidarity.
posted by Maarika at 1:52 PM on May 9, 2017

We established a routine, as others are saying, and were firm about not getting up/going back too. And it worked, except kiddo kept waking up in the middle of the night. He was a big kiddo too so there was no real room for bed snuggling. Nor did we want to re-do the night routine. So we taught him he could bring his pillow/blanket in and sleep next to our bed when that happened. We did not make it comfy! He had to sleep on a hard floor. But it comforted him. He didn't do it every night, but off and on through kindergarten it would happen.

He's 11 and still has three nightlights and a radio. Sleep has never been easy for him, but this setup works and we do have our bedroom back.
posted by emjaybee at 9:10 PM on May 9, 2017 [1 favorite]

I'm not sure this would work for you, because our parenting approach is extremely different, but I find that when my daughter is using delaying tactics at bedtime, if I just close the door and start talking to her through a closed door, that helps a lot. She'll ask me to open it and I'll say that I can't because it's bedtime. Seeing mom's face seems to be a major instigator of worse behavior. If I stay outside the door I quickly become boring. This likely only works because we have always had a child safe doorknob protector on the inside of her door so she cannot open it. My child is a particular type of child and leaving the door open at night "for safety" would make no sense because she would find new ways to hurt herself/destroy the house every night if she could open it.
posted by treehorn+bunny at 11:12 PM on May 12, 2017

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