Why your toddler needs your help to fall asleep

Wondering why your toddler can't fall asleep at night?
Wondering why your toddler can't fall asleep at night?

I’d like to set the record straight. That television scene we know so well: parent tucks blanket around child, parent kisses child’s forehead and says goodnight, shuts the light, and leaves the room. Child smiles, closes eyes and goes to sleep. You know, that scene? Pure fantasy. Unrealistic, inconceivable.

We wish, but it rarely happens in real life. Among parents of toddlers and preschoolers, almost half report having to be present in the room while their child falls asleep. For those of you with a baby in the house, 68% of you are staying with your baby until he is asleep. Interestingly, by school age, more than a quarter of parents are still staying in the room at least once a week until their child is asleep.

“Even now, at 9 years old, she needs one of us to walk with her to bed, tuck her in, and spend a few minutes closing the day, rubbing her back and saying good-night. She cannot fall asleep without this ritual. It used to bother us, but as she is growing up we find that this special time keeps us connected to her every day, no matter how busy the day was.” – Pia, mother of nine-year-old Gracie

So what does this mean? First, if you stay in the room until your child is asleep you are not alone – as a matter of fact you are clearly in the majority. Second, and most importantly, this tells us that this “problem” isn’t really a “problem” at all, but normal childhood behaviour.

Why your child wants you to be there

There are a number of reasons your child wants you beside him until he falls asleep:

1. He loves you

You represent security, safety, and love. Falling asleep brings the vast unknown. If a big, strong parent is in the room, then all is well, and a child can relax enough to sleep.

2. She’s scared

The dark brings frightening shadows. The quiet invites mysterious noises. The stillness brings scary thoughts. A parent in the bed, or beside the bed, is the ultimate protection from all things scary.

3. He's worried

When the activity of the day grinds to a halt, your child’s unoccupied mind begins to sort through the day’s events. Worries enter your child’s thoughts – things that have happened, “Oh, no! Where did I put my red truck?”, and worries about upcoming events, “Did Daddy say we have to go to the doctor’s tomorrow?”

Preschoolers worry about bigger things – “Will my dog run away?” “Will our house burn down?” These worries loom large when a child is alone in the quiet and dark. Having a parent nearby is the ultimate protection against scary thoughts.

4. He’s not sleepy

If you put your child to bed when he’s not tired – or overtired – he won’t willingly stay put. He’s wide awake and would rather be doing anything else than laying in bed, so your company is the only thing that keeps him there.

5. She nurses to sleep

Almost 90% of breastfeeding toddlers fall asleep nursing at least once a week and almost 70% do this almost every night! Let me repeat that amazing information for you: Almost 90% of breastfeeding toddlers fall asleep nursing.

The sucking-to-sleep association is the most difficult and complex sleep association to change, and so this – obviously! – becomes a key component to your child needing you with her as she falls asleep.

6. She wants Mommy (or Daddy) – and nobody else will do!

No matter how wonderful and loving that your partner, the baby-sitter, or Grandma are, nature and biology take a role in causing your little one to prefer Mommy or Daddy above everyone and everything else in the world. Especially when it comes to bedtime!

While we may instinctually understand this, it can be a challenge when Mommy is also dealing with younger or older siblings, or when she’s just all “Mommied out” from a long day of child-tending.

7. It’s a routine

You have a bedtime routine now – and it involves staying with your child until she is asleep. It takes about a month for a new routine to be formed.

Whether you’ve been staying with your child until sleep from the day she was born, or you starting doing it after her sibling was born three months ago, or after your move six weeks ago, you’ve likely been reinforcing this routine – night after night – for a long, long time. It will take patience and a plan to create a new routine.

Excerpted with permission from The No-Cry Sleep Solution for Toddlers & Preschoolers by Elizabeth Pantley (McGraw-Hill, 2003)

How did you get your toddler to fall asleep and sleep on his own? Tell us by commenting below or emailing your tips and tricks to chatback@parent24.com and we may publish them.

Sign up to our weekly newsletter to receive Parent24 stories directly to your inbox.

We live in a world where facts and fiction get blurred
In times of uncertainty you need journalism you can trust. For 14 free days, you can have access to a world of in-depth analyses, investigative journalism, top opinions and a range of features. Journalism strengthens democracy. Invest in the future today. Thereafter you will be billed R75 per month. You can cancel anytime and if you cancel within 14 days you won't be billed. 
Subscribe to News24
Voting Booth
What are your thoughts on the possibility of having permanent Stage 2 or 3 load shedding?
Please select an option Oops! Something went wrong, please try again later.
I'll take that over constant schedule changes
13% - 1145 votes
Why are we normalising Eskom’s mess?
72% - 6420 votes
I've already found alternative ways of powering my home/business
15% - 1348 votes
Rand - Dollar
Rand - Pound
Rand - Euro
Rand - Aus dollar
Rand - Yen
Brent Crude
Top 40
All Share
Resource 10
Industrial 25
Financial 15
All JSE data delayed by at least 15 minutes Iress logo
Editorial feedback and complaints

Contact the public editor with feedback for our journalists, complaints, queries or suggestions about articles on News24.