My daughter won’t go to sleep without us

Q. My four-year-old daughter won’t settle at night. In the evening she won’t go asleep unless I or her father are lying beside her. If I move away or leave her she comes out after me and can scream if I don’t go back to lie with her. Her screaming seems really heartfelt as if she is genuinely anxious about being left alone. We have tried Supernanny’s advice about ignoring her and bringing her back to her room each time she comes out, but this can go on for ages and we both end up being very upset – and if she does fall asleep she does so after lots of tears, which I find really hard. I also think that on those nights she does not sleep that well and the next day she can be tired and grumpy. Do you have any suggestions as to how we can help her settle?

A. Your problem is a common one. Many parents report that they need to lie with their preschool children in order to help them get to sleep. What might have started out as a rewarding ritual for both parent and child quickly becomes a problem when, as a parent, you want to encourage your child’s independence or you need more time to yourself in the evening.

As you have discovered, changing these habits can be problematic. If you leave the room before your daughter sleeps she will come out after you. Further, she might be anxious in waiting for you to leave and this anxiety can stop her sleeping. If you resort to taking her back to her room repeatedly, this can be stressful for both parent and child and can end up with frustration on both sides. Once again, such frustration can prevent a child from being relaxed enough to sleep and, even if they do fall asleep, it ends the bedtime on a bad note between parent and child.

The good news is that there is a more effective way of helping preschoolers settle at bedtime. To apply this you need to first understand why your daughter wants you or her father beside her when she falls asleep. For most young children, the issue is simply that they feel lonely at night by themselves and want the reassurance of their parent’s presence which helps them get to sleep.

To help your daughter settle, rather than simply withdrawing your presence at bedtime, you need to use the reward of your coming back as a motivator for her to try to get asleep by herself.

In practical terms, this means taking the following steps. First, go through a normal relaxing bedtime routine with your daughter, such as reading a story together and having a final cuddle and kiss goodnight. Then tell her you are going outside but that you will be back to tuck her in after two minutes if she is quiet and tries to get to sleep.

Reassure her that you will return to give her a kiss even if she has fallen asleep. You must then make sure to return after the agreed time for the kiss and cuddle before withdrawing again for another two minutes. You gradually extend the time until, eventually, when you go back she is asleep.

If at any time she comes out of the room, you gently say to her: “get back into bed now. I’ll be in to you in a minute, but only if you lie quietly in the bed”.

You then wait until she co-operates (even to a small extent) and then go back in to give her some attention. The key to this approach is that your daughter learns she gets your positive attention by lying quietly and trying to sleep.

Knowing that you will come back will help her to settle and relax enough to fall asleep. It also makes sure that the last contact you have with her before she sleeps is a positive one – a kiss and cuddle or tuck in – which is important for her sense of security and for your relationship with her.

Of course it can take a bit of work to get this routine established, especially if your daughter is anxious or there has previously been a lot of conflict at bedtime. Many parents tell me that, when they first try this, the child comes out immediately or won’t go back to bed by themselves when asked.

In those cases you may have to start with very small steps – for example, by initially staying in the bedroom, or for the first few times guiding your child back to the bed, or by withdrawing for a very short time of a minute or even 30 seconds at first. Also, in the early days you may have to spend a bit more time outside her bedroom – you can make this time productive or relaxing for yourself (depending on what you need) by reading a book, sorting laundry or sending emails. The more relaxed you are the easier it will be for your daughter to settle.

You can also help your child learn the new routine by doing up a picture chart explaining the steps. This can include steps such as: 1) putting pyjamas on; 2) reading a story in bed; 3) having a kiss goodnight; 4) Mum leaving and child cuddling teddy 5) Mum coming back to check in.

To help you daughter, it is nice to include a picture in of you coming back to give her a kiss when she is fast asleep in the night (as this can be reassuring to her) and also a picture of her happy in the morning and getting a star for staying in bed.

You can also take time to teach your daughter strategies for getting herself to sleep such as cuddling her teddy, counting her breaths, thinking up stories in her head, remembering nice things that happened during the day, and so on. Make this learning fun and enjoyable.

Dr. John Sharry, Irish Times Newspaper, November 2012.  John writes in The Irish Times Health+ every Tuesday.