You Can Still Sleep Train a 5-Year-Old. Seriously.
I’ve been sleeping with someone new, and I feel pretty guilty about it. He’s an iridescent sequin Beanie Boo unicorn named “Uni” and he belongs to my 5-year-old daughter. Uni and I got close because, despite my best intentions, I’ve been passing out in my daughter’s bed mid-lullaby at 8 p.m. most nights lately. Even when I do manage to sneak out, once she’s softly snoring, I wind up back under her ballerina sheets when she wakes at, oh, 3:37 a.m., realizes I’m gone and cries for me.
How did I get here, spooning Uni, my retinol nightcream smearing the mesh guardrail of a toddler bed? I’ve read ALL the sleep training books. I even worked with a sleep therapist years ago to learn how to teach my first baby to self-soothe (this woman = life-changing saint). I’m worried I’ve ruined my daughter’s ability to fall asleep on her own. (What of sleepovers? What of camp?) I feel terrible that her sleep is interrupted when she leaves her bed at all hours to look for me. And on top of all that, I am tired to my very bones. If I could move under this Pottery Barn Kids duvet, I’d be kicking myself.
But a new book called It’s Never Too Late to Sleep Train beckons like a beacon of hope cutting through my brain fog. In it, Dr. Craig Canapari, M.D., director of the Yale Pediatric Sleep Center and a father of two, makes this promise: You can teach a school-age kid to sleep just as successfully as you can an infant, with minimal tears from parent or child. He insists there is no “magical window” to sleep-train a kid that closes after they’re 6 months old. Then he grabs you by the shoulders, looks you right in your under-eye circles and says: “Most kids with sleep difficulties have just one major obstacle to overcome: their parents.”
Maybe it’s the two cups of coffee talking, but I feel help is on its way. Maybe when it comes to changing entrenched childhood sleep habits, it really is better late than never. Read on for more of the book’s biggest eye-openers.
Timing is everything.“The best time to start a bedtime routine is when you bring your child home from the hospital,” writes Canapari. “The second best time is today.”
For most children up to age 10, the optimal bedtime is between 7:30 and 8:30 p.m. To figure out your child’s ideal bedtime within that window, note the time she actually falls asleep each night. Then, begin your bedtime routine roughly 45 minutes prior to that time. Do not start bedtime earlier with the delusional hope of getting her down at 6:30 p.m.; you’ll be setting yourselves up to fail. That’s because she likely won’t have enough internal sleep pressure that early, and it will only drag out the drama.
Make sure your evening routine leads in only one direction: toward the bed. Writes Canapari: “I will do anything to keep my kids from going back downstairs after we start brushing teeth.”
Your secret weapons: Communication, preparation and affection.
The first step toward breaking an older kid’s co-sleeping habit is talking to her about the imminent change. Tell her “you are so proud of her for becoming such a big girl, and that it is time for an exciting new step.”
If your kid prefers your bed, make her bedroom more enticing by allowing her to pick out new sheets or a pillow, or perhaps an even bigger sequin unicorn. (It’s not a bribe. It’s a reward for being open to change.)
Explain exactly what’s going to start happening at night from now on (more on that in a sec). And do daytime rehearsals so your kid knows what to expect at bedtime. Perform a mini version of your go-to-sleep routine, including your new sleep training method (we’ll get there). This will minimize the dread and anxiety for you both when it’s time for the real deal. Make these practice sessions fun! Get into your pjs, pretend you are the child, and have your kid “put you to bed.” Have her practice putting a stuffed animal to bed. Lavish her with praise and affection after successful rehearsals. Positive association with bedtime? Check.
When she asks if she can still come into your room if she is scared or sad at night, answer: “Yes, of course you can, but I think you’re such a big girl that you won’t need to that often.” If she expresses fear about going to sleep on her own, tell her, “Mommy is still here for you and will help you. Come and get me if you are scared or sad. But I think you will like having your own space.”
Amp up loving physical contact during waking hours, and soothe daytime tantrums with Time-Ins. Staying calm during midday meltdowns prepares you to manage inevitable midnight ones.
Positive reinforcement works for sleep habits—not just daytime behavior. “Often we parents react to negative behavior but ignore good behavior,” writes Canapari, who’s just won the title of Wisest Dad Ever. “Don’t miss opportunities to praise your child for doing a good job. Notice any small steps toward that perfect night of sleep.” If your kid screams slightly less at bedtime, that’s a win. Lavish him with hugs and kisses accordingly. If he stays in his room until 6:01 a.m. as opposed to 5:55 a.m., bulldoze him with affection. “Praise small steps like they are big victories,” writes Canapari. “Reward her for a good try.”
So here’s exactly what you do:To sleep train older children, Canapari advocates a method called “Progressive Breaks.” He offers lots of other methods, too, but I’m highlighting this one because it’s ideal for anxious parents (that’s me). In a nutshell, “you are expecting your child to deal with your absence for short periods of time, which gradually increase.”
Once again, timing is key. I turn off the light and lie down with my daughter at 8 p.m. and she’s usually asleep by 8:20. So at 8:10 PM, or mid-way through her “sleep onset process,” I would remind her that (as we rehearsed) I am “taking a break” and promise to come back to her room quickly.
Then you step out and return in one minute (or less), and “praise your child like she just won the Nobel prize,” writes Canapari. “Tell her, ‘Look at you in your bed like a big girl! You look so comfortable and cozy! I am so proud of you for staying put and relaxing, just like we talked about. I knew you could do it!’ The praise should be over-the-top, and if you don’t feel a bit embarrassed about how enthusiastic you’re being, lay it on thicker.” Once you’re back in her room, stay with her until she falls asleep.
The next night, do the same thing, except leave for a two-minute break. The following night, leave for three minutes. But always come back as promised so you don’t break her trust. If you come back and find her asleep, do not wake her.
The goal is for her to fall asleep on her own while you are out on a break.
How to deal when your kid comes in at night:
Canapari suggests “The Silent Return.” Originated by legendary sleep book author Dr. Marc Weissbluth, this is when you wordlessly (or almost wordlessly; you can repeat a “sleep mantra,” like “It’s time to go to sleep. I love you. Shhhh…”) escort your child back to his room every single time he gets up in the night. You may have to do this 30 times the first night. But if sweet dreams are made of this, who am I to disagree?