When people think of sleep training, most think about little babies. The truth of the matter is, there are plenty of toddlers and preschool aged children that do not know how to fall asleep or back to sleep independently. This happens either because parents believe that their infants will just eventually learn, or perhaps they were sleep trained at an earlier age but for whatever reason some bad habits crept in. Either way, it’s a tricky situation as toddlers and preschoolers are much more strong willed than they were as infants, and these deeply engrained habits are sometimes difficult to break.
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 and the goal is for it to be an enjoyable process for everyone involved. Some children do really well with roll playing or pretend play. Use a babydoll 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, but to allow for the child to realize that they can in fact do things a new way, and all will be okay!
One of the benefits of working with older children is that they can be reasoned with and 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 though the night.
You will also want to make sure that your child’s bedroom is completely safe for them. Since most older children that 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. 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 sleeping independently!