The following sleep training techniques will help you solve a variety of sleep problems for toddlers, preschoolers, and older children.
-See also: Baby sleep training
Sleep training: The fading technique
If your child is developing a night-owl habit, consistently lying awake in his bed, this technique might help. Start by tracking what time he's actually falling asleep by making frequent post-bedtime peeks at him for one or two weeks. Then take the latest of these times – perhaps it's 9:30, and then use this as his bedtime for the next several nights.
The goal is to make it so that he begins falling asleep shortly after getting into bed, thus breaking the habit of tossing and turning that often becomes ingrained in a child's bedtime ritual. Once this happens, you can begin moving his bedtime back a little closer to normal day by day, and hopefully he'll continue falling asleep shortly after climbing into bed when back on his normal schedule.
Extinction therapy sleep training – A technique for toddler and preschool age children
Extinction therapy can be used to slowly wean a child of their bedside dependence on you, so that they can fall asleep without having to have you right by their side. The idea is to slowly create a little bit of separation until you get to the point where you're able to leave the room without her making a fuss.
Start by sitting on your child's bed and rubbing her back or singing to her as you normally might. Then night by night, progressively decrease the amount of contact. Still give her a short back rub or some cuddle time with a story, whatever you plan to continue doing, but hold it to whatever you need the new normal bedtime ritual to be. After that, start withdrawing contact. She'll fuss of course, so go ahead and stay by her side, rubbing her hand but not her back. After several nights of this, once the normal ritual is complete, agree to sit by her bed, but remove the touch element. You're still there, just no direct contact. The next step is to stay in the room, but in a spot away from the bed and closer to the door. Finally, move your presence to just outside the door. If all goes well, after a few weeks your child will gradually become accustomed to your absence. You should be able to leave the room after your normal bedtime ritual without any fussing or crying.
The distraction/interruption sleep training technique
This technique often works to break a child of their overdependence on you when the bedtime rituals have gotten to be too demanding or extreme.
Throughout the day, whenever your child asks you for something, make her wait just a little bit before giving it to her...anywhere from 30 seconds to a couple of minutes. This technique is referred to as patience stretching by child development specialists, and will build up her tolerance for waiting. Try to do this around 3 to 5 times per day, gradually lengthening the amount of time you make her wait.
Once bedtime rolls around and you're putting her to sleep, invent a distraction by saying "Whoops, I forgot to get something from Mommy, I'll be back soon; why don't you hold your teddy bear for me until I get back" and then leave the room. If she cries when you try to leave, go ahead and offer her some quick comfort before leaving. Then dutifully return after a minute or two and continue the ritual.
If your child absolutely will not tolerate you leaving the room, then try a variation of this technique by instead walking to the other side of the room to look out a door or window, or pretend to tidy the room or search for something. Over a few nights stretch the amount of time you spend away from the bed, then return to the bedside and congratulate your child for waiting while giving her praise. After a few nights of this, she should tolerate you leaving the room without as much fuss. Then proceed with the first ritual of creating a distraction.
Depending on the situation, you might want to try 2 such interruptions per night. Continue the same pattern night after night, slowly expanding the length of time you're away with these interruptions. After 5 or 6 sessions of this, you may return to find your child fast asleep, having managed to nod off without you. Sleep expert Dr. Harvey Karp says this technique works about 75% of the time when it involves kids older than 18 months. But some parents have successfully used it on kids as young as 12-months of age.