How Do I Teach My Child to Sleep Alone?

Anxiety, insecurity, distractions: These can all cause your little one to want some bedtime company. Luckily, you can break this habit. Here's how to encourage your child to sleep independently.

Cute family sleeping together in bed
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01 of 09

Eliminate Distractions

An image of a child watching TV.
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Remove televisions, computers, and other electronic devices from your tot's room to create an environment that is conducive to sleep. "The stimulation associated with watching TV or playing video games and the light from computer and TV screens both make it much more difficult to fall asleep," says Parents adviser Judith Owens, M.D., coauthor of Take Charge of Your Child's Sleep. "Certainly, a dim light, such as a night-light, is OK for kids who need it."

02 of 09

Establish a Bedtime Routine

happy toddler brushing teeth

Take a warm bath, put on PJs, brush teeth, and read good-night stories—getting into a regular habit helps youngsters feel more secure about going to bed. This predictability "prepares kids psychologically and reduces their nighttime anxiety," Dr. Owens says. "It lowers stress levels and creates a series of steps the child anticipates and knows will lead to bedtime."

03 of 09

Offer Support, When Necessary

An image of a mom cuddling with her daughter.
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It's one of the most common sleep problems parents report: a child who goes down like a dream... as long as a parent is within arm's reach. But if you try to leave the room before they're in a deep slumber, chaos breaks loose: wailing, clutching, and a total reset on the falling-asleep process. Emilie Caro, a certified pediatric sleep consultant and founder of Emilie Caro Sleep in New York City, is a fan of gradually phasing out a parent's presence.

Counterintuitive as it may sound, start by sleeping in your kid's room for a few days, but make your presence as boring as possible. "Giving attention to your child, even if it's negative attention, will encourage them to repeat the behavior," Caro says. "Don't engage with your kid when they should be sleeping." For the first few days, simply return your little one to bed any time they wake up. Your proximity "gets them in the habit of sleeping through the night in their bed," she says.

04 of 09

Minimize Your Presence

Small child sleeping in bed

Once you have comforted your child, you'll want to minimize your presence. Stop sleeping in their room, and shift to sitting on a chair near your child's door for a few days instead, during bedtime and any middle-of-the-night wakings. Then, remove yourself from the room entirely. By Day 10, Caro's clients typically see a "huge improvement."

05 of 09

Establish a Sense of Security

An image of a little girl sleeping.
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Your absence or the thought of a monster lurking under the bed can leave your babe wide-eyed at bedtime. Ease the transition from sleep to wake—and calm their fears—with comforting objects such as stuffed animals, blankets, or even a nearby goldfish tank. "Let there be another presence in the room that reassures your child," Dr. Owens says.

06 of 09

Take It Slow

Little preschool kid boy sleeping in bed with colorful lamp.

Many parents prefer to put their child to bed and tell them that they'll come back in a bit to check on them. Keep your promise, but wait for successively longer intervals of time. Ideally, they'll fall asleep during one of these intervals. Dr. Owens suggests starting with a 5-to 10-minute waiting period. If you return in less than 5 minutes, they'll likely be awake. But if you wait too long, "the child might become anxious and agitated, which makes the situation worse," she says.

07 of 09

Be Consistent

family feet in bed
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If your child slips into your bed in the middle of the night, accompany them right back to their room without much interaction, Dr. Owens says. Simply say, "You need to stay in bed." It's important to be firm about returning your child to their bed every time this happens. "If you don't do this every time, it teaches your child to be more persistent," she says.

08 of 09

Reward Good Behavior

Child eating lollipop

While it's important to ignore undesirable behavior, such as crying, you should also reward good behavior. After a good night, let your little one choose their favorite cereal or pick out their outfit the next morning. "This helps them associate the behavior with the reward," Dr. Owens says.

09 of 09

Give Your Child Attention During the Day

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Caro recommends prioritizing ten minutes of one-on-one time during the day. "It seems like such a small thing, but it can make a huge difference to have that special time when you listen to your child without distractions," she says. And it fills their "attention cup" at the time they should be getting attention: during the day.

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