How To Gently Help Your Toddler Sleep Alone

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It is possible to gently help your toddler fall asleep alone, in his or her own room, without a struggle or cry-it-out sleep training–even if your child is a long-term cosleeper! Here’s how we did it and how you can do the same.

It’s not a secret: We don’t sleep train.

Not in the traditional sense, at least. We encourage sleep, of course, but there is no cry-it-out, controlled crying, fading, eat-play-sleep, none of that.

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And no, it’s not because I think parents who sleep train are terrible. It’s just not something I felt comfortable doing knowing what I know about breastfeeding and normal infant sleep. And it’s not something we’ve needed to do with either baby.

Instead, we cosleep, follow safe bedsharing guidelines, and nurse on demand.

How to Gently Help Your Toddler Sleep Alone

It works really well for us, and sleep has never been a stress-inducing source of struggle in our home. With the exception of during a few short weeks right after birth, everyone sleeps well.  

Whenever I share this with anyone, though, I inevitably get this question:

But how will your baby every learn to sleep on her own??

It’s a good question. And today, I’m sharing the answer:

PATIENCE

That’s not what you want to hear. I know. Wait wait wait! Don’t close that browser yet! Patience is just one part of the answer! Hear me out.

START WITH REALISTIC SLEEP EXPECTATIONS

Sleep is developmental (source). Just as it takes time for babies to learn to crawl and walk and talk, it takes time for babies to learn to “sleep through the night.” It takes time for them to develop the circadian rhythms adults already have, and it takes time for them to begin producing melatonin and other hormones associated with sleep in the same way adults do (source)–more time than most new parents realize!

As it turns out, sleep disruptions in toddlers is very normal and most likely have a developmental basis (source).

Having realistic expectations about my children’s biological, social and emotional development helped me look for sleep strategies that allowed me to meet them where they were at. Working with their sleep biology instead of against it made sleep less stressful, and it helped me see their behavior as normal rather than a problem.

Indeed, research has shown that parents who intentionally cosleep are more likely to notice sleep behaviors that other parents find problematic, yet are less likely to identify these same behaviors as problematic themselves (source).

Eventually, though, it is true a baby no longer needs the assistance of a caregiver to fall and stay asleep at night. When a child “should” get to this point, however, is both a cultural matter (in the US, we tend to believe the appropriate time frame is as soon as humanly possible) and dependent on the unique development of the child in question.

But what if you think the child is ready? If you don’t do sleep training in infancy, how do you get a child from needing help falling asleep to going to sleep on their own–preferably in their own bed in their own room??

Here’s how we did it.

Mother and daughter cosleeping. It is possible to gently help a toddler sleep alone.
There is no rule that you need to stop cosleeping by a certain age. There is no research to suggest that the practice is in any way developmentally harmful. If it is working for you and your child, don’t fix something that isn’t broken!

1. If you’re breastfeeding, night wean.

When I was about 18 weeks pregnant with LoLo, baby #2, I was ready to wean my oldest, Little Bo, who was about 25 months old at the time. She had been nursing to sleep since infancy, and by this point was nursing 3-4 times a day still, almost exclusively before sleep.

The morning nursing session was the easiest to drop, since I could simply offer breakfast instead. Evening was also easy: Dad took over bedtime. Afternoon nap was a little harder, but Little Bo found she was happy to hold onto a lock of my hair (“oosh,” as she called it) in lieu of nursing to sleep.

2. SET UP A SEPARATE SLEEP SPACE

The next step was getting her into her own sleep space.

When she was 2 years and 3 months old, We set up a twin bed next to ours using a bed frame we already had, some metal slats, and an affordable twin mattress. The bed was only about a foot off the ground, so in the unlikely event she fell (she never did), it wouldn’t be far.

3. SLOWLY NORMALIZE THE NEW SLEEP SPACE

For a few months, Dad would lie down next to her until she fell asleep (often falling asleep himself amidst the cuddles) and then sneak back into our bed later. She was mostly sleeping through the night by that point, but if she woke, he was right there to help her back to sleep.

This helped her get used to sleeping in the new space without adding in multiple new changes at once.

When LoLo finally joined the family, Little Bo was 2 years and 6 months, and she still needed one of us to lie down next to her to help her fall asleep. So we took a divide and conquer approach: Dad helped Little Bo at night while I woke up to nurse LoLo.

During the day, though, I had both girls by myself while Dad was at work, and nap time was a struggle. At least, until I did this…

4. Practice solitary nap sleep

One afternoon, I decreed there would be “Quiet Time.”

I emptied Little Bo’s room of most of her toys (read: distractions), baby-proofed it completely, set up a baby monitor, and pushed her twin bed into her room. She was allowed a couple of toys, and was actually excited to play in her room by herself “like a big gorl” (her words, not a typo). After about 15-30 minutes of gleeful playing, she would always fall asleep.

The peace and quiet in the afternoon (that would last as long as 3 hours sometimes!) was golden. And it gave me some much needed time to attend to LoLo without distraction.

5. Drop a nap (if appropriate) & MOVE UP BEDTIME

By the time Little Bo was about 2 years 10 months, I found it would take longer and longer for her to fall asleep during Quiet Time, and it started pushing her bedtime later and later.

So we dropped the last nap. Afternoon “Quiet Time” was no more–but she could lie down on the couch and fall asleep if she wanted (spoiler alert: she never did).

Now, by 6:45pm, we get started with the bedtime routine. Nothing elaborate, no big song and dance, just things we need to do before we get into bed, like clean the living room of the day’s toy mess, go potty, brush teeth, and read a book. We make sure we have our stuffed animal or baby doll of choice in hand, and then…

It’s Quiet Time.

We just moved Quiet Time back a few hours. And it worked. She was falling asleep by herself in her own room without tears or cry-it-out training by 2 years and 10 months old.

Not sure if my strategy will work for your family?

GET MORE SLEEP WITHOUT SLEEP TRAINING!

Looking for an attachment-focused sleep program that doesn’t involve “crying-it-out”? Click the button below for programs that are just what you’re looking for!

YOU CAN HELP YOUR TODDLER SLEEP ALONE, EVEN IF YOU COSLEEP!

I was told if I didn’t sleep train in infancy, what I am experiencing now shouldn’t be possible. My child will never sleep unassisted and will need me forever (dun dun dunnnn).

But that wasn’t the case.

Was it quick? No. The whole process took about 10 months.

Will it work for every family? No. But it met my child’s needs, aligned with our parenting values, and ultimately worked really well for us. I’ll do the same thing with LoLo, and if it doesn’t work for her, I’ll keep trying gentle approaches until one of them does. Because that is important to me.

Knowing my daughter, a traditional sleep training approach would have been extremely stressful for both of us. And since sleep training often has to be done over again as baby goes through “sleep regressions” and developmental leaps, I suspect we would have experienced that stress repeatedly.

At the end of the day, remember this:

There are a lot of different ways to encourage sleep. If sleep training makes you uncomfortable, you are not doomed without it. And you’re not “wrong” for choosing the path less traveled or the path of least resistance.

GET MORE SLEEP WITHOUT SLEEP TRAINING!

Looking for an attachment-focused sleep program that doesn’t involve “crying-it-out”? Click the button below for programs that are just what you’re looking for!

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