My friend, Nika recently asked me a question: “My three-year-old daughter, Lisa, goes to sleep relatively easily, but I always lie down next to her until she falls asleep. This practice used to be okay with me. I started it when she was a baby when I needed a nap too, but now I would like to change that. What do I do? I want to make sure falling asleep will be a positive experience in her life. I want to make this change in a respectful way.”
I wrote a few tips for Nika. You might want to consider them before you embark on making a change in your child’s life. They are:
1. It’s important to make up your mind that you are going to change the routine and accept that it is good for you and your child. It is good for her because she is learning how to sleep independently, and she is learning how to soothe herself.
2. Spend quality time during the day in your child’s room: playing together, reading, just sitting and watching your child play; this may help her to feel more comfortable and happy in her room.
3. Changes should not be introduced at a time when you are traveling or when you have house guests. Instead, the situation in the house should be stable and peaceful for the most part.
4. Get a soft and comfortable toy to sleep with. It could be a new toy or an old one that your child really likes.
5. Create a sleep routine. For example: closing windows, putting dolls to sleep, reading goodnight stories, three kisses on the cheeks and one blown kiss, etc. The more consistent you can be with the routine, the easier it will be for your child to adapt.
6. Be sure to tell your child about the upcoming changes. This can be done the same day before you try the new routine. The explanation should be simple and short. “I know that you are used to falling asleep when I lie down next to you. It’s time to learn to fall asleep on your own. I will put you to bed and read a story, and then I will lie down with you for a little bit. After that, I will go clean up the kitchen. “
7. Help the child to process. During the day, this scenario can be played out with a doll. Put the doll to sleep in this new way, modeling what will happen with your child.
8. You can create your own book using photos of your child. The book can depict the sleep routine, perhaps including the waking routine as well.
9. The first day of the change, you can stay close a little longer until your child is almost asleep, but not fully asleep. It will be beneficial for her to have a memory of you leaving rather than wake up and be alarmed that you are not beside her.
10. Many children like to hold their parent’s hand as they fall asleep but it is preferable to change this habit. When a child holds your hand, she monitors your presence and when you pull your hand gently away, this often causes her to protest. Instead, if she wants to hold your hand, gently pat her on the back or stroke her forehead.
11. Patting, stroking, and singing a song are better not to do too steadily; change the rhythm sometimes. Then your child will not be anticipating when you will stop. This anticipation may cause anxiety.
12. The last movement should be more pronounced, as it signals that you have finished helping her settle down and you are ready to depart. After all, you are not trying to sneak out. Another thing you can do is to always sing a certain song last, as a signal that you are about to depart.
13. There is a high probability that in the first few days of these changes, your child will get up and follow you to the kitchen or call to you. Be prepared for this. Gently take her into her room and place her back to sleep. Keep speaking to her at a minimum. You may tell her ahead of time, “If you come out of your room to get me, I will bring you back here silently.”
14. Mark the first day of the new routine on the calendar. Prepare yourself for the fact that a new habit can take at least 21 days to create. (http://www.willbowen.com).
15. Show empathy, by touching, hugging, holding and using an understanding tone of voice, but don’t use this time to reason with your child. You want to keep the talking at a minimum. You can acknowledge by saying, “I see you want me to sleep with you …”
16. When you notice even slight changes in the routine, recognize them: “I noticed that today, after we read the story and I lay down with you for a bit, you stayed in bed by yourself.”
17. Try to stay calm and do your best not to show that you are expecting to hear her cry or that you are anxious about it.
18. You might want to talk about it the next day: “Lisa, I am helping you learn to fall asleep by yourself. I know you can handle it and I will be right here.”
This method can help your child slowly adjust to this new routine, create new routines, and discover self-soothing techniques.