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Helping Toddler to Sleep Alone

QUESTION: I have three sons -- a four-year-old, 27-month-old, and five-month-old. My 27-month-old can be very stubborn. He is just starting to talk and when he gets frustrated with a situation he will scream and throw a fit. I have tried restraining him, diverting his attention, soothing him, using time-outs, and removing him physically from the location. Nothing seems to work. This behavior began before the new baby was born. What I can do?

ANSWER: Your son is in need of your guidance. If your son still naps, consider decreasing his daytime naps, so that he becomes more tired at the end of the day. It would also be wise to initiate a bedtime ritual that allows him to adjust to a nightly separation from you.

Talk to him when you put him down to bed. Review what his activities were during the day. Rub his back, read several books and sing a goodnight song while putting him to bed. It is important that you do not let his crying disrupt your calm. Instead, repeatedly tell him he will be fine, and explain to him where mommy and daddy are sleeping. You might want to give him a cuddly toy animal.

If he is sleepy enough, he will be more likely to succumb to your reassuring voice and gentle, but firm, persistence. Take turns putting him to bed, so that he can experience both mom and dad as his primary nurturers at bedtime.

You might also consider whether he is getting enough of you during the day. Does he spend time with you on a daily basis, or does someone care for him other than yourself? If he is crying because he misses you, consider spending close time with him before putting him to bed each evening. He will learn to count on this period of time as his and be more willing to relinquish you at bedtime.

If he is with you most of the day, rest assured that his crying is a sign that he is attached to you, and naturally orients himself to be in your presence. It is his job to cry (survival instinct), and yours to establish limits that you can live with, and help him adjust to, over time.

Be prepared to stay in his room up to 30 minutes the first night, before his crying truly subsides. Patiently "wear him out" with persistent reassurances and cooing. Absorb his screams, neutrally and calmly. In other words, find your own sense of centeredness inside. This is necessary, in order for your child to sense that he is indeed secure in separating from you at night. Sensitive children often "pick up" their parents' inner calm -- or inner exasperation!

Consider returning in the night to reassure him with your presence, if necessary. He will eventually learn that his own bed is a safe and secure place. But do not underestimate the quality of your own internal state in calming him.

If your child remains highly upset despite your repeated and persistent efforts, consult your pediatrician.

Keep in mind that your most effective allies in parenthood are patience, calm and determination. Learn to answer his tears with these qualities, and you will develop the skills you need to help him "let go" and trust the guidelines you establish for him, now and in the future.


Gayle Peterson, MSSW, LCSW, PhD is a family therapist specializing in prenatal and family development. She trains professionals in her prenatal counseling model and is the author of An Easier Childbirth, Birthing Normally and her latest book, Making Healthy Families. Her articles on family relationships appear in professional journals and she is an oft-quoted expert in popular magazines such as Woman's Day, Mothering and Parenting. . She also serves on the advisory board for Fit Pregnancy Magazine.

Dr. Gayle Peterson has written family columns for ParentsPlace.com, igrandparents.com, the Bay Area's Parents Press newspaper and the Sierra Foothill's Family Post. She has also hosted a live radio show, "Ask Dr. Gayle" on www.ivillage.com, answering questions on family relationships and parenting. Dr. Peterson has appeared on numerous radio and television interviews including Canadian broadcast as a family and communications expert in the twelve part documentary "Baby's Best Chance". She is former clinical director of the Holistic Health Program at John F. Kennedy University in Northern California and adjunct faculty at the California Institute for Integral Studies in San Francisco. A national public speaker on women's issues and family development, Gayle Peterson practices psychotherapy in Oakland, California and Nevada City, California. She also offers an online certification training program in Prenatal Counseling and Birth Hypnosis. Gayle and is a wife, mother of two adult children and a proud grandmother of three lively boys and one sparkling granddaughter.

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