Q: When is it realistic to expect a child to be able to fall asleep by themselves? We are in the habit of lying down next to our toddler every night until he falls asleep, which takes 45 minutes or more. What strategies encourage small children to fall asleep on their own accord
A: Falling asleep by oneself is what is called “self settling”. Self-settling is a learned skill and is achievable in the first weeks of life. Basically whether a baby learns to self settle or not in fact depends on whether they are given the space to fall asleep on their own in the first few weeks of life. Babies who fall asleep on their own, by this I specifically mean that when their eyes close for the final time and they are by themselves, in their cot, wrapped and a nice full tummy drift off to sleep naturally. At this moment their brain remembers what is around them as they fall asleep. What is around them then becomes what their brain ‘thinks’ they need to go to sleep. So if for example you are around them, holding them, touching them, your heart beat, smell and warmth their brain thinks they need all these bits and pieces to go to sleep. When you are not there you are simply replaced with the smell of their sheets, the feel of the sheets, their wrap, noise of the air con, radio, birds, whatever it is that happens to exist when their eyes close for the final time. If you wish your baby to learn how to fall asleep independent of you, all you need to do is more often than not make sure that when their eyes close for that final time it is not associated with you.
When you do this, you enable your baby or child to sleep without your presence, which is one of the best skills you could ever teach your child. Why I say this, is because as your baby or child goes through different sleep cycles during the night and there are times when they awake fully and they do a quick cue check. Their brain goes through the checklist list that they have developed: cot, sheets, wrap, room, noises, full tummy etc. yes tick, tick, tick now I will go back to sleep. If this checklist involves you it will go something like this: mummy, warmth, heartbeat, touch, sucking? No, no, no I need to cry and ask you to do what you usually do so that I can relax and go back to sleep.
Most parents are unaware that this is how their baby’s brain learns the skill of sleep. Often parents believe that it is a sign of how much you are willing to give if you let your baby fall asleep on you constantly or not. A baby falling asleep on you is quite a wonderful moment as a parent and teaching your baby to self-settle certainly doesn’t mean you miss this special time. It just means that if your baby is becoming reliant on you to help them get to sleep or you do this all the time, their brain will automatically cue you in to their ability to get to sleep. Thus, you limit your baby’s ability to fall asleep on your own and make them reliant on you. The end result is that they have a restless night with poor sleep and multiple night waking’s asking you to come back and help them. Once you know this information, you realize that the best method for your baby is to get a deep restful sleep and be able to go to sleep on its own.
As for your toddler it is not to late for him to learn this and depending how fast you want him to relearn this skill there are different methods. You can simply start by not staying with your son until his eyes do that final close. Once you are not there and his eyes close his brain will quickly learn that he can achieve this without you. I would start making excuses to leave for a few minutes like needing to go to the bathroom, have a shower etc. Get him used to you coming and going at this stage and ideally it should take children 5 – 10 minutes to fall asleep without you.
In my experience, the longer it takes beyond this time the more tired a child is. Therefore, I would recommend you to put him to bed earlier than you normally would. See how this goes and if you have him at the right time, he will fall asleep within 10 minutes. Good Luck.