Parenting Q & A
Ellen Barrett, a parent educator at Family Connections (formerly Heights Parent Center) for the last 12 years, fields questions about the daily ups and downs of parenting. The same issues impact many parents. E-mail questions to Barrett at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Q. For several months, since our daughter turned three, we've seen a major change in her sleep behavior. She is very attached to me, and wants nothing to do with her father at bedtime. Before, either of us could put her to bed with a smooth bedtime routine, and then leave the room while she was still awake. But now, she wants only me, and I have to stay with her until she's fully asleep. We've tried to let her cry it out and she gets hysterical—screaming loudly and crying constantly.
I'm not sure what changed over the past few months, and wonder if this is just a phase, or something more serious.
A. It can be very frustrating and a little scary when your child seems to change behavior patterns suddenly. Although it is important to make sure she is not sick or facing any new, difficult or unusual experiences during the day, it is likely that you are seeing the manifestation of very typical feelings for any three-year-old. At this age, a desire for independence is in conflict with an active imagination and newfound fears of monsters under the bed.
A few strategies can help address these new developmental milestones to which your three-year-old is adjusting:
* The best way to help your daughter to sleep is to stick to a bedtime routine. Consistency and predictability are very important in easing her mind. Give her fair warning when bedtime approaches and offer her some limited choices: “After I finish the dishes we’re going upstairs for bed. Are you going to hop or march up the stairs tonight?” This will help her to anticipate that bedtime is near, but still give her some control. Your routine should be simple—a bath, teeth brushing, reading a story are standard, reasonable activities. A few extras, like saying goodnight to the moon or a having a sip of water, are fine, but don’t drag it out.
* Avoid nighttime television, high-energy activities, and scary books or stories after dinner. Look for ways to enable her body and mind to start to slow down. This will help her to make the transition to the dimmed light and quiet of bedtime.
* Set aside some special time together. Give her a chance to share her day, and you can share yours too. Find out if something actually is bothering her. This warm exchange at the end of the day will help satisfy her need to feel connected to you, and will be comforting as she settles down into sleep. Reassure her that you love her and will see her in the morning.
* If she seems desperate for you to stay with her, try to maintain some distance, to discourage dependency. First, try standing in her room with minimal or no talking. Make your way out of the room gradually, reassuring her that you will be nearby. Each night, shorten the length of time you stay with her. Do not engage in power struggles or lengthy explanations, and remain calm.
* Try using positive motivation. What might be an incentive for your daughter? Start small, perhaps with a sticker each night for three nights, and a small prize after the three stickers are earned. Praise her the next day and help her recognize that it feels good to stay asleep all night.
Don’t try to accomplish it all in one night. Allow her, and yourself, a series of nights to adjust to new expectations. Be firm, reassuring and consistent. Sleep training at any age can be a long, difficult process. Remember, if she could do it once, she can learn to do it again.
Ellen Barret is a program director at Family Connections, a life-long resident of Cleveland Heights and the mother of two (nearly grown) sons.