What to do when your child needs your help to fall asleep
Elizabeth Pantley discusses what to do when your child needs your help to fall asleep. Sometimes it isn't always possible to remain with you little one until they've fallen asleep. Pantley offers some suggestions for mothers and fathers with this problem.

Elizabeth Pantley discusses what to do when your child needs your help to fall asleep. Sometimes it isn't always possible to remain with you little one until they've fallen asleep. Pantley offers some suggestions for mothers and fathers with this problem.

What is it that bothers you?

When I interviewed parents about what exactly it is that bothers them about having to stay with their children until they fell asleep the 5 most common answers were these (and many included a combination of all five):

  • “It takes a long time for her to fall asleep, and I have things I need to do, so I get very antsy about lying there.”
  • “Sometimes I even fall asleep before he does, so I’m in bed too early.”
  • “She gets used to my staying beside her so if she wakes up she wants me back.”
  • “I have a baby and a husband who needs me too, so I feel pulled in all directions.”
  • “At the end of the day I just don’t have the energy to deal with bedtime. I want to just tuck him in and get on with it.”

Before we proceed with the solutions, take some time to figure out what it is that bothers you about having to stay with your child until the sandman arrives. When you can understand your own feelings it will help you choose the correct plan of action to take as you make begin to make changes to your current bedtime practices.

Choose a path

You may have never looked at it this way, but there are two paths you can follow. Either choice can work beautifully. But you need to make a decision and follow it up with a plan:

  • Continue to stay with your child until he or she falls asleep – but do so in a way that encourages your child to fall asleep quickly.


  • Take steps to help your child learn how to fall asleep on his own.

Stay or don’t stay – but don’t whiffle-waffle. Very often parents feel “stuck.” They don’t want to stay, but they do it to prevent tears or a tantrum. So some nights it works fine – their child falls asleep peacefully and quickly. Other nights parents have pressing issues to get to, so they try to rush the process, or their child is too wired up to sleep, but either way, their child reacts by staying wide awake for far too long. The lying-with/staying-with ritual drags on for an hour or more, often with the parent becoming angry and the child resorting to tears. So, in the end, parents get stuck with both: they get to stay and they get the tantrum too.

There is not a “correct” answer here – either approach works for many families. So, decide which path you are going to follow – stay or don’t stay – and be consistent with whatever choice you make. When you maintain a pattern, and apply a complete sleep plan, you will end up with a more peaceful bedtime hour.

Deciding to stay

Like the majority of your fellow parents, you may decide that when your child falls asleep quickly it’s not an inconvenience to stay in the room with him, and if you knew he’d always fall asleep promptly you wouldn’t mind the stay. If this is what you decide to do – let your child know, and he’ll relax into the new routine! Tell him in a very pleasant tone of voice, as if offering a gift, “From now on I will stay with you until you fall asleep. Then I will go to my own bed. We both sleep all night, and then we can cuddle in the morning.”

What about night waking?

Many children are able to go to sleep with a parent’s company, and then sleep all night without further help. Some, though, continue to depend on a parent’s company anytime they wake up throughout the night. All human beings have night wakings – it’s how your child falls back to sleep that can create problems for you, so if this is also a problem you may want to modify the falling to sleep routine. Your sleep routines can change and modify over time. Just because you choose one path now doesn’t mean you can’t change approaches over time.

How to stay and promote sleep

The key to staying, and making it a pleasant routine for everyone involved, is to set a specific bedtime routine that ends in quiet, peaceful darkness. The finale to your bedtime routine should be your quiet presence as your child nods off. If you continue to talk and interact with your child you may be actually keeping him awake! So do all your usual things – reading, storytelling, nursing, back-rubbing – and then turn off the lights and be quiet. The only noise you should make is a quiet “Shhh, Shhh” in response to any movement or noise from your little one.

The exception to this is a child who falls asleep easily to a parent’s quiet singing, humming or story telling, under one condition: Do this only if you enjoy it too. Don’t get into a habit of doing something to please your child if you hate it! You’ll just resent the process and your emotions will prevent bedtime from being the peaceful, loving time it should be.

Invite tiredness

When bedtime arrives you want your child to be perfectly tired. If he isn’t tired, or if he is overtired, he’ll struggle against your desire for him to go to sleep. Make sure your little one is getting the right amount of nighttime and nap time sleep. Take a look at your child’s daily nap schedule and make sure that naps aren’t too long or too late in the day.

Look at your child’s daily flow of activity and bursts of energy. You should be encouraging lots of energetic play between morning and dinner time, and planning quiet time from dinner time until bedtime. You’ll want him to get plenty of fresh air and exercise during the day, and provide enough time to wind-down before sleep time.

Have an early enough bedtime so that your child doesn’t become over-tired. Make sure the time is consistent – try to stick with the set bedtime seven days a week – so that your child’s biological clock is ticking in tune to his scheduled bedtime.

The “don't stay” option

You may decide that you really do want your child to fall asleep independently, and you don’t want to stay in the room as he falls asleep. You can achieve this goal, but as with most sleep situations, there is not one right method that works for every family, nor is there a quick-fix easy solution. It will take some thoughtful planning to create a comfortable, safe routine that ends in your child falling asleep on his own once you leave the room. Your child should have the company of a stuffed animal, a special blanket and some soft music to help him to fall asleep happily.

Excerpted with permission by McGraw-Hill Publishing from The No-Cry Sleep Solution for Toddlers & Preschoolers (McGraw-Hill 2005)


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