Most parents start sleep training their little ones at a very young age — while their children are still in their infancy, in fact. But if you've waited a bit longer than that or your 2-year-old just hasn't managed to get the hang of sleeping on their own yet, is it too late?
The good news is, not at all. You can still sleep train your toddler or adolescent child, so you can go back to getting better sleep (and enough sleep) on your own with the confidence that your child is developing healthy sleep habits. Here's how.
What is Sleep Training?
Is the whole concept of sleep training new to you? It very well might be. After all, sleeping comes naturally to us adults, and you've likely seen your child fall asleep exhausted many times. Who needs to be trained to sleep when it's something that comes so easily (at least, after a certain point)?
Turns out, kids do need to be trained in the art of sleeping. Or rather, it's not really the art of sleeping that they have to learn, but more so the ability to stay in their own bed, try to fall asleep and not freak when they're left alone in a dark room without mom or dad.
Delaying your child's sleep training can result in long-term sleep disorders for your child, as well as short-term problems for you (say goodbye to your normal sleep schedule, parents!). Additionally, some parents do worry that improper sleep training or a lack thereof can result in emotional issues, too, as children worry about abandonment, fear of being alone and other issues.
What does traditional sleep training look like?
If you're reading this article about sleep training toddlers and big kids, chances are you're past the traditional sleep training period. Most parents begin sleep training their child around six months of age or whenever their child is no longer feeding throughout the nighttime.
Alex Savy, a certified sleep science coach and founder of SleepingOcean.com, encourages all parents that it's never too late to teach your child to stay in bed all night. However, she does note that it won't always come easy. "Sleep-training toddlers and older kids can be stressful and often takes multiple trials and errors."
So before you take yourself too seriously and build up a mountain of strategy for your family to climb together, remember to have patience and grace for both you and your child. This is as hard for them as it is for you. And you don't want to lose your special bond with your child just because they get scared at night.
Common Sleep Training Methods
One of the most common sleep training methods is the "cry it out method," where you literally just put your infant to bed in their crib and then let them cry it out. The hope is that they'll exhaust themselves and just eventually fall asleep. Over time, they'll learn that what they're scared of isn't so scary, and they'll stop the seemingly endless wailing.
The goal for the “cry it out method” isn't keeping your child in bed, too afraid to wake up until it's light outside. And it isn't even to teach them to sleep all night long. Instead, this method helps parents teach their children to self-soothe and fall back asleep after they've woken up in the middle of the night. Because chances are, they are going to wake up in the middle of the night.
The cry it out method was more popular for older generations, but many millennial parents have turned away from this method for a few reasons. The most common complaint is the fear of emotional damage that might impact the child. It also isn't the most nurturing of methods. After all, if your child knows you aren't going to come in for them all night long, it might make them more stressed out about sleeping.
Is there a good middle ground that helps build up your child’s ability to self soothe without the emotional trauma? We think so. And so does Savy. She prefers the Fading Attention method, sometimes called the “Take A Break” method or the Ferber Method, which helps children soothe themselves back to sleep but still offers parental support through the night in a gradual weaning process:
"Let's say your child's bedtime is usually at 8:30 p.m., and it takes them half an hour to fall asleep. This means they will probably need you to be there from 8:30 p.m. till 9 p.m. During this time, you can leave the room for around a minute a few times (come up with any excuse, such as to go to the bathroom). When you return from your break, make sure you praise your little one for being so independent and staying in bed all by themselves. With time, you can extend your breaks until your baby gets used to falling asleep on their own."
This method doesn't have an age restriction, so it can help get your older children in the habit of falling asleep without you, too.
Create a Safe, Soothing Space
One of the biggest hindrances to getting your child to sleep in their own bed? They're just plain scared. The first step to getting them to go to sleep and stay asleep is to create a soothing space where they feel safe, warm and cozy. This is especially important if your child is in the process of moving from a crib to a big kid bed (which usually happens sometime around 2 or 3 years old — or once they're big enough to escape the crib)!
A soothing environment is also important if your child is experiencing some separation anxiety as they move from co-sleeping to sleeping alone.
Keep familiar, comforting objects near your child's bed, whether that's a favorite stuffed animal, a photo of the family or anything else you think they might appreciate (this will become their "sleep association" item). A nightlight is usually a popular pick. Sleep noise machines may also help drown out any distracting or "scary" outside noises.
Many parents have opted to avoid the "what's under the bed" phenomenon entirely by putting their child's mattress on the floor. Not only will this keep your child's imagination from skyrocketing at every sound, but it also helps cushion their fall in case you have a vivid dreamer that moves around a bit. If you have already introduced a toddler bed and your kiddo is convinced a monster is living under there, check out What's Under the Bed Ted? by Make Believe Ideas Ltd on Amazon.
Experts recommend that, however your child's room is set up for sleep, make sure it stays that way throughout the entire night. If they fall asleep to the soothing sounds of white noise on a noise machine and the hall light being on, those elements should still be present if they wake up in the middle of the night to encourage them to go back to sleep.
Beyond all this, you can further reinforce to your child that their bedroom is a positive, happy space by spending time in their bedroom as a family, whether it be playing during the day or for storytime at night. Don't make their bedrooms solely about sleeping. But at the same time, don't make it too stimulating. Sleep issues can arise simply because toys are way more exciting than a bed.
Create a Sleep Routine
It's no secret that young children love routine, and giving them a routine can reinforce some of those positive behaviors you want to see. While you may be hesitant to establish a strict bedtime routine and worry about what will happen if you ever break it, a routine is a good place to start if you're having trouble getting your child to bed each night.
Your bedtime routine doesn't need to be extravagant or stressful. Instead, just make it about the same activities and same length of time every evening (regardless of the day of the week and how busy your schedule might be — make it a priority). Maybe your routine is bath time, story time then sleepy time. Maybe it's brushing their teeth, talking as a family in the bedroom and then singing a song before bed. Whatever it is, make it enjoyable for your child.
During the routine, keep voices low and the rest of the house relatively prepared for sleep, too. If you plan on watching television after the kids are in bed, keep it quiet. Don't leave all the lights in the house on.
Some parents find it helpful to actually rehearse the bedtime routine ahead of time. Rather than jump straight into it, practice it during the day several times without the actual need to go to bed so that your child knows what to expect once it actually is bedtime.
Once you have this routine established, stick to it and make sure the other caregivers in your child's life stick to it as well, from grandparents to older siblings to babysitters.
Look at Your Own Behavior
Through all of this, it's important to keep an eye on your own mood and behavior. If you're acting stressed out, grumpy and upset during your child's bedtime routine, they're more likely to pick up those emotions and less likely to go to sleep easily.
Try your best to put on a smile, no matter how difficult your day was, and provide a little verbal positive reinforcement as a reward for your child's good behavior.
Employ the Same Good Sleep Techniques Adults Use
Look at the sleep techniques that adults use to get better sleep. Some of them may just help your child.
For example, is your child spending two hours on their tablet before going to bed? The screen time could be impacting their ability to get to sleep and then stay asleep. Consider limiting screen time before bed.
Is their room at a comfortable temperature? You may want to adjust the thermostat a few degrees for the best sleep possible.
Do they find their pajamas comfortable? No one wants to sleep in itchy or annoying clothes.
Consider what you need in order to go to sleep and then give your child the same.
Use Your Child's Energy Levels to Your Advantage
If your child isn't going to sleep and continuously pops out of their bedroom thirty minutes or an hour after you've put them down, it might just be that you're trying to put your child to bed too early, or you've allowed them to nap too close to bedtime.
Try to use your child's energy levels to your advantage. If this occurs, move the start of your bedtime routine back by an hour and then see what happens.
Worried this technique is going to end up with your child staying awake until 10 p.m. every night and then waking up exceedingly cranky the next day? Don't be.
Once your child is comfortable going to bed and easily falling asleep at that later time, start moving their bedtime up again, in small, unnoticeable increments. Maybe they're going to bed easily at 9 p.m., but you'd really prefer they go to bed at 8 p.m. So, one week you move their bedtime to 8:45 p.m., then the next week to 8:30 p.m. and so on.
Lead By Example
One way to get your child more comfortable in their bedroom is to simply lead by example. Show them that sleeping is safe and easy — but don't show them in your own bed. Instead, grab a sleeping bag, set up camp next to their bed and sleep beside them for a few nights (resist the urge to crawl in their bed for a cuddle).
Once you see that they're getting used to sleeping in their bed with you in the room, move to sitting in a chair by their bed and then leaving once they're asleep. As they become more accustomed to that, gradually leave the room after shorter amounts of time, until you're finally putting them to bed and then leaving immediately.
Returning (and Returning… and Returning Some More) to Bed
What do you do when your child gets out of bed regardless and starts to throw a tantrum? If you find yourself surprised on the couch by an intruding toddler or waking up at 1 a.m. to a five-year-old staring you in the face, the important thing is not to give in. Rather, gently lead your child back to bed. Don't argue with them, and don't bargain.
Doing this every single time (which could be many, many times during one evening at the beginning of your sleep training period) will show your child that getting out of bed or night wakings aren't going to get them what they want.
But What if the Problem is Nap Time?
You may be able to get your child to sleep at night easily, but you can't get them napping to save your life. While some of the above tips can work at nap time, too, there are a few other ways to ensure that nap time occurs each and every day, which will become crucial as your child enters daycare or preschool.
For example, stick to a nap schedule. Usually, early afternoon naps are best to ensure that your child can still sleep at night. To actually get your child ready for an early afternoon nap, plan a busy or activity-filled morning so your child is actually tired. (Remember, it doesn't take much to tire out a toddler, so you don't need to go above and beyond with the activity planning; a simple trip to the playground works, or preschoolers may find that the morning classes tire them out.)
Are There Any Reasons I Might Not Want to Sleep Train My Child?
There are a few reasons why you might not want to sleep train your child at all, regardless of what age they are.
These include a medical issue that may inhibit their sleep or if they have a specific problem that you may need to be made aware of during the middle of the night. You may want to talk to a pediatric professional if you have one of these concerns.
Additionally, you might not want to start sleep training your child if they're currently under a large amount of stress. Life changes like a big move or a parents' divorce are no time to bring huge changes to your child's lifestyle, be it sleep training or potty training. You also may not want to start both potty training and sleep training at the same time. Fight one battle at a time.
Worried your child's sleep problems may be more serious or experiencing some unexpected regression? Talk to your pediatrician or a sleep consultant.
Sleep Training isn't Easy
There's no doubt about it — sleep training a child at any age isn't easy, but it is vital, and it's never too late to start. You're teaching your child to be independent and successfully alone for one of the first times of their lives, and no matter how painful the process is, the results will be well worth it once you're both getting a good night's sleep.