Monday, October 17, 2011

"I can't sleep without you, Daddy!"

As a programs coordinator for Noel Janis-Norton, one of my job benefits is to be able to attend her Calmer, Easier, Happier Parenting seminars in Southern California.

At a talk for a Montessori school yesterday, a Dad raised his hand and said, "My 4 year old can't go to sleep if I'm not lying next to him. And then when he wakes up in the night, he can't get back to sleep unless I come back in his room and stay next to him. I feel stuck."

This is a scenario that is quite common, where parents feel helpless about this situation and are afraid of their child's reaction if they change the rules or routines. Here's how the conversation went:

Noel: It's not true that he "can't" fall asleep, he's just in the habit of you being there. Just think of it as a habit that can be changed. It's important to remember that kids are born knowing how to sleep. It is a natural human function. What we as parents do can often get in the way of them learning how to fall asleep on their own.

Dad: But he'll cry and tell us he's scared if I don't lie next to him.

Noel: He might be sad because he's used to you doing it, but here's what I recommend. Start by taking small steps. If you usually lie down with him, put a chair next to the bed and sit in it. You can do that for several days and then move the chair closer to the door. Then the next step is moving the chair outside the door.

Dad: But he'll still put up a huge fuss.

Noel: He might, but if you follow the advice I'm about to give you, it will be much less of a fuss than you may think. Start by talking with your wife about what you want the new bedtime rules to be. Then find a "neutral" time to talk with your son. By neutral, I mean not when anyone is annoyed with anyone and nobody is in a hurry. You can say to him, "Daniel, there's going to be a new rule about bedtime starting this Friday. The new rule is that after story time, I'm not going to lie next to you until you fall asleep. I'm going to sit in a chair near your bed, and you'll need to stay in your bed, lying down with your eyes closed. And you might feel sad because you like having me lie next to you. So what's the new rule?"

Now at this point he might get upset or he might not. Remember that you're not talking about this at bedtime, it's a neutral time, so he's less likely to be upset. If he does, just empathize, but don't reason or negotiate. When he's calm, have him tell you the new rule back in his own words. Once he does, ask him a number of questions, such as "What will you do if you want to get up?" and "What should you do if you wake up during the night?"

Dad: Will talking through this one time be all we'll need to do?

Noel: No, this isn't a magic wand that will solve the problem in one conversation. You'll need to do this little "talk-through" about the new rule several times before the day you plan to start the new rule. The more your son tells you what the new bedtime rules and routines are, the less likely he will resist them. The important thing is to make a rule that you can follow through with because it's a rule for you just as much as it's a rule for your son. The more consistent you are and follow through on what you say, the more your son will believe what you say and also respect you even more.

Learning how to fall asleep on their own is an important life skill that we want our children to have, and using these strategies, you will be helping him learn how to do that. This will help him develop confidence and in turn lead to more self-reliance. These are skills all parents want for their children.

Laura Fleming (see profile below)
Pasadena, CA

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