How a Stuffed Animal or Doll May Help Your Child to Go to Sleep

Bedtime Routines That Include a Caregiving Role May Ease Insomnia

A girl sleeps with her doll. Getty Images

Few things are more frustrating to parents than having to battle to get their children to go to bed. At the end of a long day, it’s time for a break for both them and you. How might a stuffed animal or doll help your child to go to sleep? Learn about behavioral insomnia in children and how a little responsibility as part of a bedtime routine can effectively ease the transition to sleep.

First, children typically experience behavioral insomnia of two types: sleep-onset association and limit-setting.

The former occurs in babies and younger children who fall asleep in their parents’ arms and when waking alone in the night, cry out to be held. Limit-setting insomnia exists in toddlers and older children who push the limits of bedtime.

In most cases, a regular bedtime routine with consistent reinforcement can help children to fall asleep faster in their own bedrooms. Inconsistency and giving in to their endless demands will cause good behavior to quickly unravel. The Ferber method is based on conditioning and increasing the time taken to respond to nighttime tantrums. Gradually, these outbursts become extinguished as the child learns to self soothe (and realizes that crying out is not getting anywhere).

As part of this, it is very important to have a regular ritual to prepare for sleep. These activities become signals for sleep transition and help reinforce expectations. Imagine talking your child through the routine: “First we take a bath, then we read together, then the lights are turned down, and then you lie in bed until you fall asleep.” It can be helpful to include a routine for a stuffed animal or doll as well to model good behavior.

In other contexts, this has been called the “huggy puppy” intervention and helps to relieve nighttime fears.

If your child has a favorite stuffed animal or doll, walk through the bedtime routine with the toy as well. Set up a small bed together for it, perhaps a shoebox with a little blanket or pillow.

Give your child responsibility for preparing the toy for bed. In a sense, you are empowering your child as the caregiver for the stuffed animal or doll. As the toy is tucked in when reading time is over, with a little peck on the forehead, your child similarly follows suit and crawls into bed.

Now, the important part occurs: tell your child to set a good example for the favored toy. Stay in bed. Don’t get up and leave the toy alone, as it may become scared. Keep it safe until morning. It needs a good night of sleep, just like you. Show it how to be a good sleeper.

It is surprising how effective this simple routine can be to improve a child’s motivation to stay in bed. As the bedtime routine and pattern is reinforced, especially as you disengage from unnecessary indulgences, the struggles at bedtime will ease.

If you still have consistent problems getting your child to transition to sleep, speak with your pediatrician about other techniques that may be helpful to resolve insomnia.

Sources:

Sadeh, A et al. “Young children’s reactions to war-related stress: A survey and assessment of an innovative intervention.” Pediatrics. January 2008;121(1):46-53.

Kryger, MH et al. "Principles and Practice of Sleep Medicine." Elsevier, 5th edition, 2011.

Kushnir J and Sadeh A. “Assessment of brief interventions for nighttime fears in preschool children.” Eur J Pediatr. 2012 Jan;171(1):67-75.

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