How to Get a Toddler to Sleep Alone in His Own Room

Setting Bedtime Boundaries

Young boy child sleeping
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A reader asks:

"We weaned our 28-month-old son from his bottle a few months ago and as a result we had to sleep with him in his bed otherwise he would not stay in his room. My wife stays at home with him during the day while I work and I suppose it is a more natural choice that when he has to go to sleep, he wants his mom to be next to him. In the past, since I bathe him at night, I've been able to distract him and put him to bed myself, but lately he will not go for it and it results in tears. Eventually his mom gives in and he gets what he wants. How do we get his mom a break and eventually get him to go to sleep on his own?"

When it comes to establishing good sleep habits, the earlier you start the better. It's going to be easier on your child and easier on yourself if you get those rules and routines going so that you can avoid problems later. Some parents don't realize that the habits they allow or even encourage can lead to sleep problems later. Once these problems have developed it can be difficult to make changes, but it's not impossible and is certainly worth the effort.

Sleep Associations

Children start establishing sleep associations very early in life. If your son is used to falling asleep with a bottle, he will make that association every time it's bedtime until the association is broken or replaced. The same is true of any soothing measures that you offer your child. If you pat your child to sleep, if you rock him to sleep, if you sleep with him every night, if he takes a pacifier or must have a specific stuffed animal or blanket, etc.

Some of these associations are healthy. You want to set up certain routines so that your child's mind and body will begin to be ready for sleep. You might take a warm, soothing bath. Brush teeth. Read a story together. Turn all the lights down low. Turn off the television. You might have a rule about no rough-housing or other excitement a couple of hours before bed in order to indicate that a calm, soothing bedtime is approaching.

Other associations are not so healthy. If you give your child chocolate and caffeine before bedtime, he's going to have a problem falling asleep. If he has to have a bottle of milk in order to fall asleep, it may seem fine at first, but it later becomes an inconvenience and is unhealthy due to baby bottle cavities that can develop. It can also be a source of extra calories that your toddler doesn't really need.

Other associations that we might encourage straddle the line of healthy and unhealthy or may not seem like that big of a deal at first. What you have to consider then is whether or not it is truly affecting your child's sleep and whether it's affecting your own sleep or sanity or that of another caregiver.

Is it Co-Sleeping or Something Else?

Co-sleeping is one of those hotly debated issues that I feel straddles the line between healthy and unhealthy sleep habits and associations. I think that it can be a perfectly fine way for families to sleep when it's done right and is working for everyone involved. It's how my son slept most nights (and a lot of naps) until he was around 3-4 years old, so I'm no stranger to the family bed.

I think it's unhealthy when it's not working for everyone involved. If both parents who sleep in the bed disagree with co-sleeping, for instance, then something is going to have to give. I can't exactly tell from your email, but your language ("I suppose it's a more natural choice" and mom "gives in" and your son "gets what he wants") seems to indicate that you aren't really too keen on the situation. In your case, too, it's not even as though your son sleeps with you, but rather that your wife sleeps with him in his bed. This is not a traditional family bed situation, but rather a probably desperate solution to a problem that can be fixed another way.

If your child isn't getting enough sleep (which, for a child your son's age is about 13 hours split between around 11 hours of sleep at night and a 2-hour nap) co-sleeping could be part of the problem and it can lead to sleep deprivation. A child should not be keeping adult hours.

If your child regularly goes to bed late and wakes up early (as many adults do) then he's probably not getting enough sleep or is compensating for the loss by falling asleep in the car, at the lunch or dinner table or wherever he can. Keeping a child on an adult sleep schedule is one-way family bed the wrong way.

More commonly, though, this problem arises because parents started a sleep association (like falling asleep in the child's bed) that they no longer want to be involved in. At first they may have been keeping the child's schedule but as that became impractical, they kept up the old habit but shifted the bedtime to their own adult bedtime.

Fixing Bad Sleep Associations is Difficult but not Impossible

Bad news first: Fixing your son's sleep problem is not going to be easy. I'll give you a little boot camp tough love here and tell you, "Welcome to parenthood, where nothing that you thought would be easy ever is." That said, it's not impossible and this is just the first of many tough situations you'll encounter with your child. When it's over and you have a great sleeper and everyone in the family is well-rested and happy, you will look back at how hard it was and know it was worth it.

First, you should sit down with your wife and get on the same page with her about what you both want and how you both really feel about the sleep situation. Sit down with pen and paper and count the hours of sleep that everyone is getting and if you miss her presence in your bed, then let it be known and don't feel bad about it. At 28 months, your son is capable, with your teaching, of falling asleep on his own and you have every right to want your wife in bed with you. Your wife also has a responsibility to herself and her family to take care of herself and that includes getting adequate rest. So many moms complain about feeling sleep deprived, but we don't realize that sometimes we're a big part of the problem.

Next, both of you need to alter your perception of who is in charge of this situation. Parents of toddlers often get stuck in this trap. It seems impossible to control toddlers or to get them to do what we want sometimes.

I have heard it in the language of many parents and I can hear it in yours, too, ("we had to sleep with him in his bed otherwise he would not stay in his room" and "but lately he will not go for it and it results in tears"). We fail our kids, however, if we allow them to do what they want just because they're louder, they cry or they outlast us.

We are the adults and we must set rules and limits for their own health, safety and mental well-being. We also fail them if we are too strict or callous and allow them no room to make mistakes and learn. Balanced discipline is key in these situations, but in the end, you're the one in charge of discipline, not your toddler.

Finally, make a plan and implement it consistently. If you and your wife decide that your son needs to fall asleep in his bed without mom, then you've got a goal in place to work toward. Get ready for some hard but rewarding work. I'm going to suggest a few ways of getting started.

Solution 1: Dad Handles Bedtime

Since you've already said that it was easy for you for a while to put him to bed without mom sleeping with him, I'd suggest giving this a go. Make sure you've got the optimal set-up going first. Get a good bedtime routine going, keep the lights low and voices quiet, and allow your son to choose a book or two and his own pajamas and a stuffed animal (sometimes giving a child some choices at bedtime helps them feel like they're more in control of the situation).

Then tell him that he needs to stay in his bed and sleep. Be firm, because this is not optional. The minute you let him think he has a choice, he's going to make one and it's probably not the choice you want him to make. After you've told him this, kissed him goodnight and tucked him in, then leave the room.

If he seems insecure or cries as you are leaving, you can verbally reassure him that you're just down the hall but that he has to stay in bed. Then exit the room. I do not suggest completely shutting the door of an insecure child, but I don't think it should be left open completely either, unless you can ensure that noises and lights will not distract him from sleeping. Keeping the door open just a crack is good: It allows him to faintly hear you and feel your presence and it also allows you to check on him later in an unobtrusive way.

Here comes the hard part. If he gets out of bed then you must take him and physically put him back in bed.

It's best to do this without talking, arguing or making a big production out of it. If he senses that your voice is going up an octave and you are desperately reassuring him ("It's all right buddy, there's no need to cry, oh baby why are you crying, it's all right, daddy's here, don't worry...") then he's not going to be hearing your words, but rather your tone, which is one of alarm and stress rather than calm and reassurance.

So, without a word, just put him back in bed. Don't be rough or angry, but do be firm.

You might be able to put him back into bed and exit the room and he will get the point that it's time for sleeping and you mean business. If so, lucky you! Most of the time, however, since he already has a different habit established and you've given in to him in the past, he's going to test you to see if you really mean what you're saying. So, mean it! Keep taking him back, over and over again until he stays.

If he chases you out of the room immediately instead of waiting until you're out of the room to get out of bed, you'll have to take a little bit of a different tactic. In this case, I advise sitting on the floor or setting up a chair in the room. Be close to the bed (to physically reassure him of your presence and so that you can easily place him back without over exhausting yourself) but you should not get in the bed or allow him to sit in your lap or be out of the bed. You also should only tell him one time that you are going to sit right there and that he has to stay in his bed.

Then do not do any more talking and just wait him out. Do not go to sleep on the floor next to his bed or get into the bed, no matter how tempting it may be. When he's asleep, leave the room.

You can expect, realistically, that the first week of this method is going to be the hardest, but it's also the most important in terms of consistency and following through on the limit you've set. You can also expect, that when done properly, it shouldn't take longer than 2-3 weeks for this new sleep habit to become established. The best part is that after the first week, there will be a steep drop in the amount of time it takes for your child to accept the limit and go to sleep. Each day gets easier after that, so don't give up too soon because you think it's not working. It will be three of the most difficult weeks of your parenting life thus far, probably, but the dividends are so sweet. You'll look back on this time and wish you'd done it sooner.

Solution 2: Mom Handles Bedtime

The next way to handle the situation is to put Mom in charge. Is there anything different in the way that Mom should handle bedtime as described above? Not at all. Mom should follow all the same steps and be just as consistent. The problem here is that it sounds like Mom is the one who tends to cave in to the tears at your house. I totally understand this. Not to stereotype or anything, but we moms respond to the cries of our babies. It's what we do. It's our job. There's science behind it and it doesn't just shut down one day when our babies aren't babies anymore.

So, Mom needs to face this fact and steel herself for some very difficult nights and Dad needs to understand that it's going to be a tougher road for her than it would be for him. You can help her out by telling her you understand how hard it is and giving her all the support she needs. When she emerges from that room, be ready for her with a foot rub, a cup of decaf tea and some reassuring words. Let her tell you all about how impossible it seems and let her cry about it if she needs to. Pat her on the back for a job well done.

Solution 3: Tag Team Bedtime

If you're both on the same page and are ready to really teach your child the meaning of "United we stand, divided we fall" then tag team bedtime. Nothing sends a clearer message that a boundary has been set in place that must not be crossed than when both parents are there backing each other up all the way. Just make sure you both stick to the plan or your tag team will turn out to be more like "good cop, bad cop." (That always works on Law and Order but seldom in a house with kids under 5.)

A Word About Crying

I don't want to seem callous here, but I do want to give parents a warning about yielding too often to a toddler's cry. This age is full of emotion. Some days it will feel like you are on a roller coaster ride with all the extremes of emotional response your child brings your way. Not all of these responses are reasonable or justified. For example, a half-hour meltdown is not generally warranted simply because you got your toddler's peas too close to his mashed potatoes, but that may be exactly what you get some nights.

This is also not to say that every reaction that your toddler has is groundless. Even when it seems unreasonable to us, it will feel very real to your toddler. Still, it's our job as parents to teach our children how to cope with tough emotional situations and come out on the other side better for it. If we consistently succumb to our toddler's cries and reinforce overblown reactions to situations that do not warrant them, then we are doing no favors in preparing our kids for life. You simply can't protect your child from every episode of tears or difficulty.

In the situation here, your child may certainly cry, but know fully that you are doing him no harm as long as you are being present, active and responsive. It may feel like you are not being responsive or loving when you are not talking to your child, but understand that for a toddler, sometimes actions speak louder than words. Your presence nearby as he sleeps is being responsive.

You will be reinforcing this as you tell him with your words every night that you are just down the hall. It will be reinforced even if you have to sit with him for a few weeks until he understands and is secure that you mean what you say. He is safe in his room and, deep down, you know this. If he cries, that fact doesn't change.

He's still safe in his room and you are still nearby.

In order to better help your child cope with the hard task of becoming more independent and learning how to sleep on his own, be sure that you take moments during the day when you are not in the throes of working out a sleep problem to talk about it. Offer your child lots of daytime cuddles and love. Tell him how proud you are of him each time that he takes a step toward sleeping on his own. Remark on his progress and be sure to take the time to listen when he expresses pride in himself. Some toddlers are surprised when they accomplish things that they thought were too hard in the beginning. (Sounds kind of like us parents, sometimes, huh?)

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