How to Sleep Train Toddlers and Big Kids
If your child has graduated from a crib to a bed but resists falling asleep and staying asleep, I can guarantee two things. First, you are fed up and tired. Second, the classic sleep-training techniques you've heard about like "Cry It Out" won't work. Your child is too stubborn and strong now—and most kids this age won't just stay in bed and cry. But don't despair! As the director of the Yale Pediatric Sleep Center, I know there are effective techniques for older children, and I'm going to share a few of my favorites.
Whichever method you choose, the solution is to peel back your involvement at bedtime by having your child deal with your absence for short periods of time, and then gradually increase that time. Also, when you return to their room after leaving them alone, you need to praise them like they just won the Nobel Prize. Say things like "Look at you in your bed like a big kid! You look so comfortable! I am so proud of you for staying put and relaxing, just like we talked about!" And if you don't feel a bit embarrassed at how enthusiastic you're being, lay it on even thicker. This over-the-top praise and attention is the best way to reinforce their efforts.
Start With Rehearsals
I was a theater nerd in high school. With any production, you spend a lot of time practicing, and we had a tradition called "Toga Night." Two nights before opening night, we would run the play, but instead of our normal costumes, we would wear bedsheets and throw cream pies in each other's faces. It took the edge off of everyone's nerves and reminded everyone to have fun.
I'm not suggesting that you throw a cream pie in your child's face when they comes out of their room for the tenth time. However, practicing a new bedtime plan during the day can help both parents and children who are terrified of making changes to their sleep routine. Here are a few essentials for successful rehearsals:
- Do a mini version of bedtime. There's no need to brush teeth and read a story (although you can), but do go through all the other steps of bedtime and your new sleep-training technique. Gush about your child's success like you would when it's actually nighttime.
- Make it fun. Act goofy. First, you can pretend to be the child and have your child be the parent. Get into your pajamas if you have time, or have them practice putting their teddy bear to bed. If you don't make this fun, they'll be as unexcited about it as they about their real bedtime.
- Do it at least a few times per week. I know this can be difficult for working parents. The more you practice, the better it will go, but it's fine if you're only able to rehearse on the weekends.
- Rehearse at least a few hours before bedtime. You don't want to do this right before your child needs to go to sleep—that's often already a fraught time. Instead, do it in the morning or in the afternoon.
Take a Break
This is one of my favorite sleep-training methods because it's so gentle. Before you begin, you'll need to have an idea of how long it typically takes your child to fall asleep after you turn out the lights. (If they currently rely on you to be there with them, I suspect you have a pretty good idea.) Let's say that you turn off the lights at 8:00 p.m. and they fall asleep at 8:20 p.m. In the middle of that 20-minute period, you'll leave the room to "take a break" for a brief interval, and then return.
Here's how it goes:
- Rehearse the whole process once or twice during the day so that your child knows what to expect.
- Go through your regular bedtime routine, ending with this mantra: "I love you. It's time to go to sleep. Good night." Then stay quietly in the room.
- At 8:10 p.m., tell your child that you're taking a quick break. Leave the room and promise you'll come back soon.
- Return to their room in one minute and praise your child extravagantly. "Look what a big kid you are! You stayed in bed and are so cozy! Great job!" Feel free to give hugs and kisses too.
- Stay until they fall asleep.
- Do the same thing the next night, except leave the room for two minutes. The night after that, leave for three minutes. Your child will slowly increase their capacity to be alone at night—and your goal is for them to fall asleep during one of the breaks. If they do, it's still crucial that you follow through on your promise to return to their room.
- Once your child falls asleep independently for a week (or you're taking a 30-minute break), you can stop.
The Excuse-Me Drill
This is a different variation that involves taking multiple, very short breaks, and it works for children who tend to cry, scream, or get up when you leave even briefly. However, it'll require a higher level of energy from you. As before, rehearse this once or twice during the day so your child knows what to expect.
- Go through your bedtime routine, and say good night.
- A little bit after lights-out, tell your child that you need to step out for just a moment to do something. (This is called the "Excuse-Me Drill" because you say something along the lines of, "Excuse me for a second—I need to check on the soufflé/basketball game score/price of Bitcoin.")
- Stay out for 30 or 60 seconds, or the amount of time your child can typically tolerate without getting out of bed. Return and praise your child extravagantly.
- A little bit later, step out again for a very brief interval.
- On night one, you'll do this 20 to 30 times. Every time you come back in, provide the affection and attention that reinforces your child's bravery in being apart from you. On night two, you'll gradually increase the amount of time you spend out of the room. Each night, the breaks will be longer and longer until your child starts falling asleep without you. Once they can do that for a week, your mission is accomplished.
Reprinted from It's Never Too Late to Sleep Train: The Low-Stress Way to High-Quality Sleep for Babies, Kids, and Parents © 2019 by Craig Canapari. Published by Rodale Books, an imprint of Random House, a division of Penguin Random House LLC.