My child needs a specific item or person present

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.

Choose a strategy below to help your child

Sleep associations

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.

Checking method

Controlled comforting or checking method

Controlled Comforting or the Checking Method (for older children) is a strategy for dealing with persistent settling and waking problems in children. It involves briefly comforting, settling and then leaving your child for short time periods so your child learns to go to sleep on their own. The purpose of this is to reassure your child you are still there and to reassure yourself that your child is OK. This can be particularly helpful for children who are anxious about going to sleep.


About the method

The idea with the controlled comforting/checking method is to give your child the opportunity to learn to go to sleep by themselves. If your child gets upset when you leave their bedroom, wait a short time before you go back to them, gradually increase the time you spend outside the bedroom before going to check on them. In this way, they are also learning that you are not far away and will return.


Before you start

Parents dealing with sleep and settling problems can become very tired and stressed, particularly if they’re losing sleep themselves. Controlled comforting is sometimes tried by parents who feel overwhelmed, or whose wellbeing is suffering. Before you start, make sure your child is getting lots of attention, time and affection during the day.


Doing controlled comforting and checking method

2. Turn baby monitors down or even off: Make sure you can still hear your child without a monitor.

3. Don’t wait outside your child bedroom: Go into another room and distract yourself – make a cup of tea or turn on the TV. Only go back to check on your child when the set time is up.

4. Talk to your partner first: Make sure that you both agree with what’s going on. Work out what role each of you will play – for example, helping with resettling or timing the intervals.

6. Avoid important commitments: Clear your schedule for the first few days after you start controlled comforting. You need to be able to see it through without a major change to your child’s routine.


How much time will I wait

Set your own intervals of time based on how long you think you can manage: For some children, frequent checking is good – say 2, then 4, 6, 8, then 10 minutes. For others, less check- ing is best – say 5, then 10, 15, 20, then 25 minutes.


Step by step

First, establish a consistent and positive bedtime routine, see the Good Sleep Habits for ideas. Also, decide on the waiting times between checks that are best for you and your child.

    • When it is time, settle your child in bed, say “goodnight” and leave the room before your child is asleep. Promise to come back and check on him.
    • Stay out of the bedroom and give your child a chance to settle by herself. Ignore grizzling.
    • If your child starts to really cry, wait the first time interval you have decided (e.g. 2 minutes) before Checking your child (see below).
    • After leaving the room, again give your child a chance to settle by herself.
    • If she again starts to cry, wait for the second time interval (e.g. 4 minutes) before going to check her.
    • Continue to check on your child as long as she is upset, gradually stretching the interval times.

Camping out

Camping out

Camping Out is a strategy for dealing with persistent settling and waking problems in babies and young children. It can also be helpful with older children who are having problems getting to sleep, particularly if they feel anxious or frightened.


Camping out step by step

Before you start, have a good bedtime routine in place, see the Good Sleep Habits page.

When doing Camping Out, you sit next to your child’s bed and gradually (over nights) move further away. Each night you stay with your child until they fall asleep and then you leave the room. This helps children learn how to settle themselves to sleep, rather than needing you to be nearby.

1. Stay on each step: For a few nights until your child gets used to this new arrangement. Use the same approach whenever you settle your child for sleep, such as if they wake overnight and for any daytime naps.

Step 1. Place your chair next to your child’s bed or cot. Sit, and pat or stroke your child off to sleep.

Step 2. With the chair in the same place, sit next to your child, but do not touch them, until they fall asleep.

Step 3. Move the chair away (half a metre or so) from your child’s bed or cot. Sit there until they fall asleep.

Step 4. Continue to gradually move the chair toward the doorway and out of your child’s room over a period of one to three weeks.

2. Reward: Reward your child in the morning for being able to stay in their own bed at the start of the night (talked about more in the Rewards strategy). If things haven’t improved after two weeks, talk to your doctor or child and family health nurse. They’ll be able to help you develop a program tailored to your child’s needs.


Tips for settling your child

Sleep time not playtime!: If your child tries to play with you, calmly say it is sleep time and you will only stay if they lie down for sleep. If they continue, leave for a short time (a minute or two). When you return, again say you will only stay if they lie down for sleep.

Try to avoid making eye contact: This tells him that play time has finished. It might also help to close your own eyes.

Some younger children get angry that their parents aren’t picking them up: Resist the temptation to pick her up. If you do, you may reinforce this habit. She will eventually learn that you are there for comfort, but not for picking up.


Extinction burst

After a few good nights or even weeks, your child may suddenly start doing the old behaviour, and more often or more strongly than before. This is known as an extinction burst and while disheartening, it is temporary. If you can keep going with the strategy, the behaviours should stop after a few days. If you can’t keep going, you can try again at a later time, but future attempts may be harder.

Bedtime fading

Bedtime Fading

If your child is taking more than an hour to fall asleep after your chosen bedtime, you may find that trying to put your child to bed at the earlier time results in bedtime struggles. For some children it is best to gradually make their bedtime earlier, starting at the time they are naturally tired and ready for bed.


Setting a suitable bedtime

A good strategy for changing your child’s bedtime is Bedtime Fading:

  1. Work out when your child is naturally falling asleep and set this as the temporary bedtime. For example, if you want your child to go to bed at 8:30pm, but they usually do not fall asleep until 10:00pm, choose 10:00pm as the temporary bedtime.

  2. Once they are falling asleep easily and quickly at this temporary bedtime then make their bedtime earlier by 15 minutes.

  3. When they are falling asleep easily and quickly at this new bedtime then bring it forward by another 15 minutes.

  4. Keep on doing this until you have reached the bedtime you want (for example, 8:30pm).

Be patient. If you move bedtime too quickly, your child may be unable to fall asleep.

Eg, Mawsons bedtime

fading-chart

Get morning light

Morning light also helps set an earlier bedtime and helps keep the body clock on the right track. Open the curtains in the bedroom, eat breakfast in a sunny area, or spend some time outdoors.


Be consistent

Keep trying for a number of nights, 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.

Rewards

Rewards

Rewards can really motivate a child to improve their behaviour. They work best if given soon after the behaviour not after a few days. After a couple of weeks, they may not work as well but by then you hope your child’s behaviour has improved! Reward charts are appropriate for children 3 years and over.


Setting up a reward system

1. Set up a chart

Create it: You can choose from lots of different styles of charts, or make one yourself. Older children might like to create their own chart, perhaps with a drawing or photo of the reward they’re trying to earn. You can also download free charts from the internet. E.g. try searching for “reward charts to colour in”

Place it: Put the chart where your child can see it. Keep in mind that your older child might prefer a spot that’s private – for example, his bedroom, instead of on the fridge.

reward-chart

2. Rewards

Decide which stickers or tokens to use: star stickers work well for younger children, whereas older kids might like points or other markers.

Keep rewards small and cheap e.g. stickers, stamps. It is not necessary for rewards to be or expensive, but rather a small symbol that you are happy with your child’s behaviour.

Choose short-term rewards: Most children start by liking the idea of collecting stickers or tokens, but the novelty can wear off quite quickly. When this happens, swapping the stickers or tokens for some short-term rewards can help them keep their eyes on the main prize. You could let your child choose from a range of objects, events and activities – for example, getting to choose an activity for special time with mum or dad, e.g. a trip to the park, a family bike ride, going to the swimming pool, or watching a favourite movie (but not just before bed!).

Try not to make food the reward

You can build on rewards e.g. 4 stickers = a lucky dip (remember to keep the prizes small and cheap) or a trip to the park or a choice of DVD after dinner.


Rewarding your child

Choose the behaviour you want to encourage: Use clear and positive descriptions of the behaviour, and talk with your child about the behaviour you want to see.

Increase your child’s chance of success to begin with: Make sure your child has a chance to get a few rewards over the first few days e.g. at first you may reward them for staying in their room at the start of the night. Once they can do this, you may then reward them only if they stay in their room the whole night.

Give the reward as soon as possible after the good behaviour: e.g. first thing in the morning. Some specific praise reminds your child why she’s getting a sticker or token. For example, “I really like the way you stayed in your bed the whole night. Here is a star for your chart”.

NEVER take away a reward: If your child has earned it, they keep it! If your child doesn’t earn a star, just move on. Focus on encouraging your child to try again.

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