What should I do if my child won’t fall asleep alone?

Many parents have problems getting their child to sleep at night. When it’s time for bed, she may want to be fed, held, walked, sung to, talked to, read to, or comforted. She would like her parents to spend time with her as she falls asleep, but they would rather put her quickly and peacefully to bed and then get on with their own activities.

Parents wonder why their child won’t fall asleep alone when they hear, or imagine, that other people’s children go to sleep easily. It’s true that some quickly fall asleep and that others are content to lie down with a bottle, pacifier, blanket, or stuffed animal. But most young children have a genuine need for their parents to be with them at night.

Bedtime can be a lonely, frightening time for young children, who naturally feel safer and more comfortable if their parents stay with them. Even three-, four-, and five-year-olds prefer not to be alone at night. One child said, “I can fall asleep better if you stay in my room”, and another asked her parents, “Why do you want me to go to sleep? Don’t you want to be with me?” A child finds it hard to understand her parents’ need to be alone—she obviously has no such need herself.

The intensity of a child’s bedtime need for her parents can be judged by the struggles that occur when they leave her in her room. A baby might spend a long time crying while an older child might get up or call out for water, another kiss, a trip to the bathroom, and anything else that would bring her parents close again. Elaborate bedtime rituals can take forty minutes or longer and often leave parents angry and frustrated. It’s not unusual for a parent to sing “Rock-a-Bye Baby” through clenched teeth.

But what happens if, instead of spending forty minutes trying to get the child to fall asleep alone, parents spend ten to twenty minutes keeping her company—feeding her or rubbing her back or lying next to her? She will feel content and secure and fall asleep peacefully without a bedtime struggle.

Once parents see how strong their child’s need and desire for closeness is, they may choose to stay with her at bedtime. In this situation, as in many others, parents will have to lower their expectations. They’ll have less free time than they’d like. But they’ll also eliminate many nighttime problems associated with a child’s loneliness, fear, and insecurity, and they’ll end their child’s day in a calm and relaxed way.

If you decide to stay with your child until she falls asleep, you may find that few people you discuss the situation with will give you support and encouragement. Many parents do stay with their children, but few talk about it because they fear criticism. In a parent discussion group, one mother blurted out that her child would not fall asleep unless she was nursed. She expected to hear criticism, but instead saw other mothers at the meeting nod their heads. Their children behaved the same way.

The time you spend helping your child fall asleep should be restful for both of you. You can use the time to relax, think, enjoy your child’s closeness, or read. At times you will probably nap or even fall asleep for the night. You may want to adjust your schedule to accommodate this by getting up earlier in the morning.

You may be afraid that if you stay with your child at bedtime, she’ll become manipulative or unwilling ever to fall asleep alone. It’s true that she will get used to having you with her, but as she gets older, her need for your company will lessen. And when you think she’s ready, you can let her know that you expect her to fall asleep alone most of the time, perhaps with the help of soothing music, a night light, or another comforting device. At that point, she’ll know that she can count on you, and that when she really needs you, you will come.

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