Help Your 3yo Sleep Alone

Sleeping childDear Miss Faith,
My daughter is 3.5 and very independent during the day, but very clingy/needy at night.  She falls asleep fine, but comes into our room in the middle of the night and nobody gets much sleep after that.  My husband and I have “solved” this by having one of us sleeping in her room each night, but we’re ready to be done with this and feel that she could be ready, too.  How can we frame it so it’s not a punishment to  sleep alone?

Dear Mama,
Thanks for writing!  Since she falls asleep on her own, the question is how to let her know that she can fall BACK to sleep on her own when she wakes in the night, as well.  If she talks about being scared, you can set up some sort of guardian to watch over her: a guardian angel, a photo of a dog, something that symbolizes protection in your home. Let her know that when she wakes up, she can look to see if her guardian is still there, and if it is, she can just close her eyes again and fall fast asleep.  If she complains of bad dreams, putting up a Dream Catcher above her bed can be just the thing.  Then if she comes in complaining of bad dreams, you can tell her, “Oh, your dream catcher must be clogged.  Let’s go clean it out.”  Then take her back to her room and ‘swipe’ the dream catcher clean with your fingers, then tuck her in again.

If she’s not scared or complaining, but just wants to be with you, then you might give her something special of yours (say, a favorite scarf) and tie it to her bed post.  You might tell her that if she falls asleep holding one end of it, then as soon as she falls asleep she’ll find you in Dreamland, and the two of you will be together all night long, there.  The next morning, ask if she saw you in Dreamland, and tell her about all of the fun things you two might have done together there.

Finally, you might talk about what the process of sleeping alone is going to be like.  Three-and-a-half is really an age when imagination comes to life in a whole new way, so talk to her using the language of imagination.   Tell a story about it for several days, or better yet, do it as a puppet show!    Pick any three stuffed animals that you have; let’s say three teddy bears.  In a very “story-time” voice, you could have them act out something like this:

          Once upon a time there were three bears who lived in the woods together.  During the summertime Baby Bear was happy to roam around the forest by himself, finding berries and honey to eat, playing in the trees, and having a good time.  But when winter would come and it was time for the bears to hibernate and sleep for a long time, then Baby Bear wanted his Mama Bear or Papa Bear to sleep in his hollow tree stump with him.  “Mama Bear, come sleep in my tree stump, right next to me,” Baby Bear would say, and Mama Bear would.  Other winters, the Baby Bear would say, “Papa Bear, come sleep in my tree stump, right next to me,” and Papa Bear would.
          But one winter, Baby Bear was in for a surprise.  “Mama Bear, come sleep in my tree stump, right next to me,” he said.  But instead of coming, Mama Bear responded, “Now that you are getting older, Baby Bear, it is time for you to sleep in your tree stump by yourself.  I will sleep in my own tree stump this winter.”  “Papa Bear, come sleep with me,” said baby bear.  But instead of coming, Papa Bear responded, “Now that you are getting older, Baby Bear, it is time for you to sleep in your tree stump by yourself.  I will sleep in my own tree stump this winter.”  Baby Bear was NOT PLEASED.  He WANTED someone to sleep in his stump with him!  He tried everything.  “Please!!!!  Please!!!  Please!!!” he wheedled.  But no.  Mama Bear and Papa Bear each stayed in their own stump.  “Come here RIGHT NOW!” yelled Baby Bear, stomping his feet.  But Mama Bear and Papa Bear each stayed in their own stump.  Finally Baby Bear tried to creep into Mama Bear’s stump with her. “When summer comes, we will all be together again,” Mama Bear said, and she led him back to his own stump.
          At first Baby Bear was sad, but he was also feeling VERY SLEEPY.  Maybe he COULD sleep in his stump all by himself!  Could he do it?  Baby Bear curled himself up into a ball, and wrapped his blanket of leaves over his back, and he found that he was cozy and warm.  Baby Bear gave a big yawn, and he closed his eyes.  He knew that his Mama Bear and his Papa Bear were in their own stumps nearby.  Baby Bear relaxed his body and fell fast asleep, all by himself.  And when he woke in the spring, there were Mama Bear and Papa Bear waiting for him!  And together they went out into the forest to find berries and honey, and played in the trees, and had a good time.  And from that day forward, Baby Bear always slept alone in his own cozy stump, knowing that his Mama Bear and his Papa Bear would be ready to give him hugs and smiles when spring came again.
You can adjust the story to fit the details of your own family.  If you don’t have stuffed animals, you can make Paper Doll puppets, or if a puppet show feels overwhelming, you can print out the story and make your own picture book out of it; she could even help you illustrate it.  Regardless of how you share it, make sure that it’s a story about a different family than yours.  Tell it for several days.  This will allow your daughter to absorb the idea that this is something that many families go through, and she can also tell you her opinions about this ‘other family’ in a way that’s safe.  She might tell you that that Mama Bear SHOULD sleep with Baby Bear, etc., and you can reassure her that it’s all for the best, and have conversations about it in a way that doesn’t feel so personal and overwhelming.  Once she has absorbed this story, then you can tell her that just like Baby Bear, it’s time for her to sleep on her own, and that even if she’s sad at the beginning, she’ll soon realize that it’s cozy in her bed and she’ll see you in the morning, etc. etc.
Regardless of what method you use, the MOST important piece of it all is that you believe that this is the right move to make, and that you are consistent after you make the change.  It may feel difficult to lead her back to her own bed multiple times per night, but remember that it’s just for now, and that when she learns to fall back to sleep on her own, ALL of you will sleep better for it.  Hang in there!
Warmly,    ~Miss Faith
Want more personalized ideas and follow-up for your family?  Join the next Tele-Class, or arrange for a one-on-one call with me.  
Thoughts, comments, questions?  Leave a comment!


  1. Faith, you are a genius. We followed a series of steps to help our girl sleep in her own bed, in her own room, until morning. We did it step by step, as Faith recommended.

    First we stopped snuggling her down to sleep and snuggling her back down to sleep. That was a rough 3 nights but we made it through. One of us sat in the chair at the foot of her bed while she figured out how to fall asleep by herself.

    Second, one of us slept on a mat on the floor while she was getting used to putting herself back down in the middle of the night.

    Only after 3 months of that (groan, but it felt right) did we then move to us both sleeping in our room and her in hers.

    Each time, we did as Faith recommended and created a rich, nourishing, comforting story that our girl could live into before we made the change. We never phrased it as “now you’re going to sleep alone” in a commanding, shaming way.

    We created a protector (we are Buddhist, so it was a Buddha) who watches over her all night. We got put on very cozy sheets and pillows and made a big deal about her bed being a cozy nest. We talked about waking up and snuggling back to sleep with Buddha watching over her and keeping her safe (we knew it was fear that was her obstacle.)

    When it was time for us to move back to her room, we talked about being like a bear family like Faith suggested in this blog.

    At every point, we worked hard to be gentle but very very very persistent. We are one week into the last stage, and even when she was sick last night and needed medicine and snuggles (NOT in bed) at 11pm, she slept through until 7:30.

    We are happy, a lot more well rested, and very grateful to Faith.

    • Oh Belinda, thanks for taking the time to share this! What a gift to give your daughter safe, solid sleep, instead of being dependent on you to settle down again each time she awakes. Good for you for going at the pace that felt right to you, even if it took a little longer than you had originally hoped.

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