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Why doesn’t my older child fall asleep independently? And how can I help them?

Recently I did a call out on my instagram stories asking what you’d like to learn from me, there was an overwhelming response that said my kid can’t fall asleep alone, and I am unsure how to help them.

So, firstly I want to preface this with… your kid wanting to fall asleep next to you, regardless of their age, is a natural normal thing. Sleep is a vulnerable change of state for all humans. Not just babies. Lots of us struggle to transition from awake to asleep.

Our children are not hardwired for separation. They are actually hardwired for connection. They know that when they go to sleep they separate from you, albeit temporarily, but it is still a physical and emotional separation from the one they hold most dear. You are their safe person, their safe place, and they like to keep you close.

When I get this request I hear from parents on both sides of the coin. I hear things like…

I should have tackled this when she was a baby, I should have worked harder to get her to fall asleep on her own back then so she wouldn’t still need it at 5. 

To which I say – trust me.. This is no guarantee! Falling asleep independently in infancy in no way guarantees that your child won’t need some help in the toddler or preschool years. 

I’ve never thought of falling asleep with my child as a “bad” thing. But, I feel ashamed whenever I tell someone my child needs this in order to fall asleep. It seems natural and normal that they would need me to be there. 

To which I say – scroll on! All good. Ha! How your family and your child sleeps is up to you, and you shouldn’t feel shame if someone wants to tell you otherwise. 

I don’t mind laying with my kiddo for a bit, but I wish they didn’t need me to be there every single night. It can take hours to put them to bed. 

To which I say – let’s work on it then friend! They are probably ready to do some of this work too. 

I’ve always said a sleep issue is not a sleep issue until it is a sleep issue for you!

We all have different tolerance levels for what we can facilitate with our children at the end of the day. Some parents welcome this close one-to-one time at the beginning of the night where their child tells them about school, and all the little details of their day. Others loathe it and can’t wait to skip out for a little netflix and chill. However you feel about this is normal, and valid, and personal to you! You and your child both deserve to feel GOOD about the bedtime routine.

SO if you’re tired of lying in the dark for hours counting sheep with your toddler, preschooler or school aged child.. What can you do? 

  1. Make sure their bedtime is timed well. For starters. This routine should not take more than 20 – 30 minutes, and if it does.. My guess is there is too much back and forth conversation happening and focusing on more relaxing mindfulness exercises and imagery might speed up the process. Bedtime could also be poorly timed. Sometimes we are still trying to hold on to that 7:30 pm bedtime when our kids are really ready to move this to 8:30 pm.

  2. Talk to your child about it. What do you like about having mommy or daddy lay with you at bedtime? How does it help you? Remember, language is our best tool with the older kiddos. Talk to them about this outside of sleep so that the pressure to fall asleep isn’t looming overhead. No sense in worrying the child before sleep time comes.

  3. Create a new ritual. Think about what you would like bedtime to look like and help your kiddo create some structure around this. Does it look like reading two stories, kissing goodnight, and coming back to check on your child? Or, does it look like laying with each other while you listen to two piano melodies, then you leave them to listen to quiet music while you check on them from the hall? Come up with a new ritual together, and create a plan for the separation that will take place.

  4. For the younger kiddos – communicate the changes in a toddler-friendly way. Create a social story or picture book of their new bedtime routine, and where parents are if they are needed. In my experience it is more helpful to say you will continue to check on your child every 2 – 3 mins, rather than have them call out for you when they need you. This creates trust, rather than a desperate plea to close the separation gap.

  5. There are fun transitions you can build in to your routine to help you with this. You might lay together and tell each other 2 stars and a wish (2 great things about your day, and 1 thing you would have liked differently). Maybe you tell a shadow puppet story with your hands and a flashlight, then leave them with a flashlight to make up a story to tell YOU the next night. Maybe you listen to an audio book together, and then leave them to listen. Dinosnores is a favourite at our house, but my kids also like listening to classical music to fall asleep.

The golden thing to remember is that checking on your child while they are learning to fall asleep without you is ESSENTIAL to building trust! Prepare them for what to expect, and then carry out the plan as you said you would.

When you follow through and show a child they can predict their parent’s behaviour, you build trust. This is why it is important you don’t flip flop night to night when you are establishing a new routine.

And because I know people are going to ask. What if my child will not stay in bed, even after establishing all of these fun new routines and setting expectations? 

They might not be ready. In my experience 3 – 6 year olds will do GREAT with the suggestions above with a caring adult leading them. But younger kiddos may still struggle. With the younger ones I would take slower baby steps.. Like moving yourself further and further away from them at bedtime. Or, instead of holding their hand until they are all the way asleep, you intermittently rub their back instead.

And remember… sometimes what our children are “ready for” changes greatly from week to week, and month to month. So, just because one of these suggestions didn’t work in the past, doesn’t mean it won’t work now.. Or in the future. 🙂

Heavy Eyes Happy Hearts is not currently accepting new clients as we are on a break for the holidays. In the new year we are going to have a fun new offering for you all! So, stay tuned for that. Thank you for your love and support, and wishing you a joyous holiday season.