Help! My toddler refuses to leave our bed

Our experts give advice on how to reclaim your private space when your toddler refuses to leave the family bed.

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While co-sleeping with your baby is a personal choice, many parents discover that once this habit has become entrenched, it’s extremely difficult to break. What may have seemed like a great idea when you brought your new bundle of joy home often transforms into a complete nightmare when your toddler or preschooler refuses to sleep on his own, which results in high levels of anxiety and stress for the whole family at bedtime.

ALSO SEE: 7 benefits of co-sleeping with your newborn baby

When deciding what sleeping arrangement is right for you, it’s important to bear a few guidelines in mind, says educational psychologist Emma Stewart. “If you choose to co-sleep, do some online research and familiarise yourself with the co-sleeping guidelines. It’s also a good idea to decide upfront, together with your partner, how long your child will co-sleep with you (at what age he will transition to his own bed), and to stick firmly to this decision.

It’s also important for you and your partner to be creative in making time for each other so that your marital relationship doesn’t suffer. In terms of what to do when your child is ill, if you strongly feel you don’t want to co-sleep, don’t put your child in your bed as this can establish a habit or expectation that may be difficult to break when your child is well again. The best solution is to allow your child to continue sleeping in his own room and to go into the room if and when needed. The most important thing is to respond to your child’s cries immediately. In this way, healthy attachment bonds will continue to strengthen.”

How to encourage independent sleeping

Jacqui Flint, routine and sleep specialist, offers the following tips on how to help your toddler or preschooler transition to his own bed.

  • If your child is still having a day sleep, insist it’s in his cot or bed in his own bedroom, so when you put him down in his bedroom at night, he’s familiar with the surroundings.
  • Always put your child in his cot or bed when he’s awake and walk out of the room so that he can see you leaving. If you do so when he’s already asleep, he’ll be frightened when he wakes up to discover he’s not where he was when he nodded off.
  • Leave the door slightly open to prevent creating a sense of isolation.
  • Leave a night light on in your child’s room, or leave the passage or bathroom light on if your little one is showing a fear of the dark.
  • Make normal household noises so that he knows you are at home and he hasn’t been abandoned.

ALSO SEE: Moving from a cot to a big bed

If you’ve followed these steps and your child cries, although you know he’s not hungry, has a clean nappy and that he’s not ill, it’s likely that he’s struggling to fall asleep on his own. This is when sleep training will be helpful, says Jacqui. “Remember that sleep training is just a boundary that you are setting and that it’s natural for your child to be resistant as he is no longer getting what he wants, so be prepared for tears. You need to be patient, confident and consistent, to remain focused while presenting a united front, and to always be loving but firm. It does take time and you may need the assistance of a sleep specialist, but with perseverance it really does work!”

ALSO SEE: What is sleep training and should I try it?

Age-appropriate sleep-training regimes

18 months – 2 years

Stand in the bedroom with your back to your child, as you don’t want to engage with him while he’s trying to settle. Keep repeating his name and telling him gently that it’s time to sleep. When he starts calming down, leave the bedroom. Make sure you leave while he is awake so that he can fall asleep unassisted.

2 – 4 years

When your child walks out of his bedroom, you need to firmly take him back to bed. Keep persevering until he stays in his bedroom and falls asleep unassisted. If he eventually falls asleep on the floor, you can either put him in his bed or cover him.

Helping your child go to sleep on his own

DO

  • Have a consistent bedtime routine.
  • Encourage physical activity during the day.
  • Spend quality time with your child before beginning the bedtime routine.
  • Utilise storybooks. Children love stories as part of a bedtime routine and there’s a wealth of children’s literature addressing sleep anxiety.

ALSO SEE: 8 tips for a calmer bedtime routine

DON’T

  • Utilise the bed or cot for play, punishment or meals. It should only be used for sleep.
  • Allow media use just before bedtime.
  • Ignore nightmares. Talk about them with your child and reassure him that dreams are not real. If the nightmares persist, seek professional advice from a psychologist or sleep expert.
  • Ignore sleepwalking or night terrors. These should be evaluated by a sleep specialist.

ALSO SEE: Dealing with nightmares

More about the experts:

Emma Stewart is a educational psychologist at Bryanwood Therapy and Assessment Centre. Her areas of interest include family therapy, parental guidance, play therapy (for children three years and older) and emotional assessments. Learn more about Emma Stewart here.

Jacqui Flint is the owner of Happy Parenting (formerly known as Baby Love). Jacqui helps parents to draw up their own personalised Parenting Plan to present a united front in order to achieve the best outcome at home for their family. Learn more about Jacqui Flint here.

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