My toddler won’t stay in her own bed

Q: I’m seeking advice on my toddler who is just over two and a half years of age. She has slept in the bed with both of us until last year. When she actually kept telling my husband, “No daddy” in the bed, he had to give in to her tantrum as it was easier. She now sleeps in our bed with me and my husband sleeps in her room. In order to go to sleep she pulls my hair, which has also become very troublesome. She wakes during the night for several hours which can be very difficult. Last night, she woke from 3.30am until 7.30am, when she fell asleep. I then had a battle to get her up, so I could go to work. This was happening every second night but now has started to occur nightly. She does not nap during the day but does have some down time before she goes to bed at about 9.30pm. I find if I put her to bed earlier than that, she will wake around 1am. Any advice would be gratefully appreciated.

Your daughter’s sleep pattern seems to be quite disrupted at the moment and having a negative effect on the quality of your family life. As a result you are right to take steps to try and change things. To address the situation, the first thing to do is to decide what your ideal sleep routine would be for the family. Though you may be very far off this at the moment, it is important to get clear in your mind what you want as parents and then to patiently work towards it.

Some decisions are personal to families and are up to you and your husband to decide. For example, some parents insist their children sleep in their own beds from an early age, while others let their children sleep with them as babies and toddlers. A lot of parents are somewhere in the middle, for example, putting their child to sleep in their own bed at bedtime (and giving the parents some time alone) but allowing their children to come into the parents’ bed in the middle of the night or early in the morning. Such a decision depends on what your child needs, your own needs and, practically, what is the least disruptive solution for all of you.

The second step to creating a good night’s sleep is to establish a consistent and relaxing routine for your daughter. In your own situation, it strikes me that your daughter’s bedtime is much later than what she needs, which is causing her to become overtired and hampering her getting a good night’s sleep. I would suggest that you pick a much earlier bedtime such as 7pm, perhaps coinciding with when she has “downtime” in the evening (which I think is likely to be an indication of her natural bedtime). Though she may continue to wake at 1am in the short term, this should improve once you stick consistently to the new bedtime and build a relaxing routine around it.

This relaxing routine should ideally include wind-down time that starts up to an hour before her actual sleep time. An example of a good routine might be:

6pm: Start of wind down, quiet play followed by a snack.

6.30pm: Bedtime ritual of cleaning teeth, pyjamas on, relaxing story with parent.

7pm: Kiss goodnight, and set her up with teddy or soother.

To address the fact that your daughter depends on you in a disruptive way to get asleep (pulling your hair and so on), it is important to encourage her to fall asleep by herself. The key is to help her learn other self-soothing strategies to get herself to sleep such as hugging a teddy, adopting a special position in the bed, sucking a soother, or even holding a piece of your clothing if it comforts her.

Though you might give her a kiss and cuddle good night, it is a good idea then to back off, give her space and let her take the final step of falling asleep by herself. Even if she continues to sleep in your bed, you can still adopt this strategy by putting some space between you in the bed and redirecting her to hold teddy if she pulls your hair.

Once you start this new bedtime routine, it is quite likely that your daughter will find the change hard and you could experience tantrums and resistance. In these situations, you might have to stay close to her and gradually support her adjusting (see a separate Ask the Expert question on “Putting the good back into night” on August 30th for a step-by-step description of how to do this, click here).

It is important to involve your husband equally in this routine. Maybe do it together the first few times, so you are consistent with her and supportive of one another. Then you can alternate so as to ensure you both get a break.

Thirdly, to address the sleep problems, you also need a clear plan of action for what you will do when your daughter wakes at night. This could be that you decide to calmly take her back to her own bed and go through a short routine of reassuring her and tucking her in. In the short term, this might take time, but it is substantially easier if the bedtime routine is going well and she is getting used to getting herself to sleep. This is why the key to solving most sleep problems is to patiently establish a relaxing early bedtime.

Of course, you could adopt a different night-time plan when she wakes such as allowing her into your bed or staying in her room until she falls asleep. One of the most creative suggestions I have heard was a mother who set up a little mattress beside the parental bed which her daughter would come into in the middle of the night if she needed to be close to her parents. They would wake up in the morning and find her there without having their sleep disrupted.

Dr. John Sharry, Irish Times, October 2011. John writes in The Irish Times Health+Family every Tuesday.