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My toddler won’t go to sleep without us in the room!
Q: When my daughter was an infant, I nursed and rocked her to sleep. Now that she’s 29 months old she always needs us in the room to fall asleep. A few times we let her stay up until she got very tired, at 11 p.m. We have also tried closing the door (she can open it), putting up a gate (which she can pull down) and explaining that mummy and Daddy are in the next room and that all her animal friends are with her. I read Dr. Caldwell’s article, "Dealing with a Nightly Bedtime Drama" which was informative. We will try the weeklong experiment, but we’re wondering: what else do you suggest? We’re expecting another baby, so we want this issue resolved. Should I move up her nap and dinnertime?
Cyndy Charleston
A: Cyndy, I’m glad you found my article informative. In it I mention three factors associated with sleeping problems: (1) the amount of sleep different children need; (2) the need 2-year-olds have to exert control; and (3) anxiety and fear. I am going to guess that there is a bit of all three in your daughter’s nightly behaviour.

First, let me say that you shouldn’t feel guilty about having rocked her to sleep when she was an infant. There are few things in the world that help establish a strong emotional bond between mothers and their children than hands-on (or breasts-on) feeding and rocking. Besides, we always have to start from where a child is at the present; we can’t go back and change the past.

I would not change her nap and feeding schedule, but I would let her stay up a little later. You mentioned that you occasionally let her stay up until 11. If she doesn’t get tired until around 11, putting her down at 8 is just asking for trouble. If I try to go to sleep before I am sleepy, I feel a little surge of anxiety that says, “Get up and do something you need to do.” Some children have trouble letting go of a day, and it sounds as though your daughter is one of them. Get her ready for bed, read her a story and then tell her that if she isn’t ready to go to sleep she can play quietly in her room. Make it clear that the evening time is for you and your husband. You could either tell her to stay in her room and play quietly with her toys (which, because of the control issue, she probably won’t do) or else come out in the room with you and your husband and be very quiet. Since closing the door seems to meet with an outburst, and since she may have some genuine fears, I wouldn’t try that.

Finally, I feel certain that some of this behaviour is related to anxiety about the birth of your new baby. You sound like such a sensitive mother that I am certain you have prepared her for the event. But that doesn’t mean she isn’t anxious about it and what it will mean to her. Your patience, perseverance and continuing love will help her adjust to this life-changing event.
Dr. Bettye M. Caldwell Ph.D. Professor of Pediatrics in Child Development and Education