How can I help my child to sleep through the night?

Your question

My four-year-old son wakes up at night and comes into our room. I’ve tried taking him back to his own bed but he just comes back again. If I let him sleep in our bed he wriggles and keeps me awake. My work is suffering, I’m utterly exhausted and desperate for a good night’s sleep! What can I do?

Our answer

It’s hard to focus at work and enjoy life’s challenges when bedtime battles leave you drained. Lack of sleep can make children tearful, relationships tetchy and spreadsheets incomprehensible. The good news is, this is a battle you can win.

All children have periods of restlessness at night. The goal is for your child to roll over and put himself back to sleep without seeking your help. So make sure you incentivise this behaviour.

Try to identify times when your son already puts himself to sleep so you can praise and reward him. Perhaps he goes to sleep by himself at bedtime? Or maybe he sleeps through the night occasionally? Or even half a night? If so, make a huge fuss about how well he has done. Take him out for his favourite treat, phone grandma to tell her all about it (in his hearing of course!). Use a reward chart to encourage him to do it more often. Start with big rewards for just half a night and gradually move the rewards further away to encourage him to sleep through several nights in a row.

At the same time, you’ll need to remove any incentives for the behaviour you want to stop. Being cuddled to sleep by a nice warm Mummy is a pretty big reward for getting out of bed – it’s going to have to stop. If your son does get out of bed, immediately take him back again: ignore all complaints and give him as little attention as possible. If he comes out again, take him back again. You may have to do this many times but you absolutely must return him to his bed every single time he gets out of it.

The first few nights could be hellish so pick your moment carefully. Choose a time when you haven’t got major deadlines or early morning meetings. Perhaps start on a Friday when you have a work-free weekend ahead, or consider taking a couple of days off if you can.

Talk to your partner (if you have one) to agree the timing – you both need to be signed up to the same plan. And whatever you do, don’t start until you have steeled yourself to see it through. If you give up halfway your son will learn he just has to be persistent and you will cave in. And that will make it harder to break his night-time habit in the future.

The upside? If you get the incentives right and stick to your guns you should be getting a full night’s sleep after a week or two.

Answered by Anita Cleare from Positive Parenting Project.

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