Sleep associations

Some children are unable to fall to sleep without the presence of a special person, thing or activity. This can stop children from falling asleep at the start of the night, and make it hard for them to get back to sleep when they naturally wake in the middle of the night too.

Key features are:

Some important tips:

1. Your child needs something (e.g. music, certain toy) or someone (e.g. mum or dad) to get to sleep.

2. If that something or someone is not present, they will not be able to get to sleep at the start if the night or fall back to sleep over night

The key to having your child sleep through the night is to help them learn to fall asleep on their own at the start of the night, so they can put themselves back to sleep when they naturally wake up during the night.

Before making any other changes it is important to set up good sleep habits. This is discussed in the Good Sleep Habits handout and the Normal Sleep.


If your child can’t get to sleep without a special activity…

If there is an activity which your child associates with going to bed and this activity also keeps them awake overnight, slowly remove it from their bedtime routine. Common activities include watching television and using computers or mobile phones.

Gradually reduce the amount of time your child spends doing the activity before sleep by 10 minutes every night.

Remove screens, such as computers, televisions and smart phones at bedtime.

Children over 2 years may respond to rewards, e.g. a special sticker in the morning. See the Rewards handout for more information about this.

If your child falls asleep watching video or listening to audio, these should be turned off when the child is drowsy, but not asleep.

Did you know…

Blue light from computer, tvs, smart phones etc. blocks the production of our natural sleep hormone melatonin? Kids who use these devices just before bedtime may not make enough melatonin to fall asleep!


If your child can’t get to sleep without a special thing…

If your child can’t fall asleep without a particular thing, such as a dummy, then not being able to find it may keep them from falling back to sleep in the night. You may need to slowly remove it from their bedtime routine. Allow your child to have the object as usual, but remove it when the child is drowsy, but not asleep.

DUMMIES: It is also possible to teach children 8 months and older to replace their dummy by themselves overnight. Attach a short dummy chain (must be less 10cm or less) to your child’s clothing. At the start of the night, guide your child’s hand down the chain onto the dummy, and back to their mouth. Do the same if the dummy falls out overnight. Your child might take 3-4 nights or more to learn to do this on their own.


If your child can’t get to sleep without a special person…

If your child cannot get to sleep without you (or another special person), you will need to help them learn to fall asleep without you being there. After you have run through the bedtime routine, the aim is for you to be able to quietly leave the room when your child is in bed sleepy but awake.

If your child cries, you can choose to use the Controlled Comforting / Checking Method, or the Camping Out method. Look at the information sheets for these methods for more detailed information.

Controlled Comforting / Checking Method: You do brief and boring checks on your child at regular time intervals while they are upset. This will reassure your child that you are still there, and reassure yourself that your child is ok.

Camping Out Method: You start by sitting right next to your child’s bed until your child falls asleep. Every few nights you move your chair further away from the bed, until eventually you and the chair are outside the door.

If your child appears to be highly anxious or fearful about not having a parent present, rather than just unable or reluctant to sleep, they may benefit from techniques discussed in the Anxiety handouts.

If your child can’t get back to sleep DURING the night, use the same method (Checking or Camping Out) you are doing at the start of the night. If doing this interrupts your sleep too much, then you can place a mattress on the floor in your bedroom and allow your child to sleep there (only if they don’t wake you).


Be consistent

Keep at it! Research shows that most children will naturally begin sleeping through the night within 1 to 2 weeks of falling asleep quickly and easily
at bedtime.

Keep trying and encourage others caring for your child to use the same strategies. Being consistent will increase your chances of success with improving your child’s sleep patterns.

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