When people think of sleep training, most think about little babies. The truth of the matter is, that there are plenty of toddlers and preschool-aged children that do not know how to fall asleep or back to sleep independently. This might happen because parents believe that their infants will just eventually learn. It might also be due to being sleep-trained at an earlier age but for whatever reason, some bad habits crept in. This means that sleep training older children is just as important as sleep training infants.
Either way, it’s a tricky situation as toddlers and preschoolers are much more strong-willed than they were as infants. These deeply ingrained habits are sometimes difficult to break. However, not all hope is lost. That is why sleep consultants like myself exist to help families create healthy sleep habits.
The following are ideas to help with sleep training older children. Follow along to start getting those restful nights’ sleep back sooner rather than later.
My first piece of advice to parents of older children is to communicate your plan and expectations to your child.
If you can bring your child into the conversation, it becomes a project that you are working on with them rather than something you are doing to them. Explain that bedtime is going to start to look a little different. A new routine is going to be implemented. The goal is for it to be an enjoyable process for everyone involved.
Some children do really well with role-playing or pretend play. Use a baby doll or stuffed animal to illustrate what bedtime will look like. Once they see Elmo falling asleep without any crying, perhaps they will be willing to try the same!
In addition to communication, you will need to have a solid plan. Make sure both parents are on board and willing to implement the plan with 100% consistency. Any protesting that you may experience is absolutely temporary if you remain consistent. The goal is not necessarily to stop the crying. Instead, it is to allow the child to realize that they can in fact do things a new way. This is a time to reassure them that all will be okay!
One of the benefits of working with older children is that they can be reasoned with. This means they can be rewarded for good behavior!
Positive reinforcement goes a long way with older children. If your child goes to sleep without protesting and sleeps through the night, consider rewarding them with quarters, chocolate chips, dinosaur figurines, or even an at-home manicure! Know your child’s “currency” and keep them incentivized to continue to sleep through the night.
You will also want to make sure that your child’s bedroom is completely safe for them. Since most older children who struggle with sleep tend to already be out of a crib and in a bed, you’ll want to make sure that there is nothing in their room that could pose a risk to their safety. All furniture should be bolted to the walls.
Child safety is an important part of sleep training older children. Cords from window blinds should be tacked to the walls, and any small toys that could be swallowed should be stored out of reach.
It’s also not a bad idea to put a gate at their door or at the top of the steps if the child’s bedroom is upstairs. The last thing you want is a three-year-old coming out of their room and falling down a flight of stairs in the middle of the night!
Lastly, know that this is not often resolved in just a few nights the way it often happens with infants. Teaching older children to sleep is a long game and one that needs to be met with patience and compassion as well as consistency. With a solid plan, commitment to consistency, and a whole lot of support, it is absolutely possible to get your child to sleep independently!