How Can I Help My Toddler Sleep In His Own Bed?

My son has always slept in his crib in his own room. About two months ago he refused to sleep in his room or in his crib. Help!@thinkstock/lsantilli

DR. RUTHERFORD: Sometimes children will go through periods when they’re scared, especially in the dark when they’re alone by themselves.  In fact, I think it’s a fairly normal stage.

MOLLY: This was submitted from a Mom in Kansas. She elaborated that her 2 year-old son needs to feel someone near him. “We have converted his crib into a toddler bed, but he still won’t sleep in his bed. He has to sleep with us. This even happens during the day also. He used to sleep fine in his crib for his naps, but now he has to fall asleep on the couch or floor as long as someone is there. I don’t know what to do anymore. So at this point all three of us (my husband, son and I) sleep in our bed. This just isn’t working for any of us.”

DR. RUTHERFORD: It sounds like, for whatever reason, he is needing reassurance that he’s not alone. One technique she could try is to substitute the real thing (meaning the parents) for a stuffed animal or two.

What she could say to the child is, “See this elephant? I’m going to put this elephant at the corner at the bottom of your bed and this elephant is going to watch over you all night and keep you safe while you’re sleeping in bed.”

I would give him a stuffed animal to hold while he’s sleeping –actually place it in his arms– and then I would put a larger one at the the bottom of the bed to be the night guard.

MOLLY: I was thinking that another thing she could do is pick out a night light together that he could leave on in his room. Or, what about if they checked for monsters together before a nap or before bedtime by opening all the closets together, checking under the bed, and taking a flashlight to the corners?

DR. RUTHERFORD: I would think she would want to ask him if he’s scared of something before doing that, because he may not be. If he is, that would be a good ritual to do together.

If he is scared of monsters or strangers in the night, a parent could even announce out loud that they are not welcome in that room and they need to clear out! The parent can even say it to the stuffed animal in front of the child. At this age, a child can’t tell the difference between fantasy and reality. If he believes the stuffed animals will protect him, that might be enough to settle his mind for sleep. I’ve seen this work over and over again.

MOLLY: Do the parents need to talk about how he needs to sleep in his own bed and not in mommy and daddy’s bed?

DR. RUTHERFORD: I wouldn’t even go there and would rather start with a transitional object first. A transitional object could be a blanket, of course, though I’ve seen it work really well with stuffed animals once children are verbal.

MOLLY: Are there any long-term effects from using a transitional object during his stage of development?

DR. RUTHERFORD: I think transitional objects can be very beneficial as children begin to face the unknown of the world around them. Most people simply outgrow the need for the object and are able to self-soothe when necessary.

ding 4 comments on “How Can I Help My Toddler Sleep In His Own Bed?

  1. Or in their own rooms. It helps when you let them customize their sleeping area, for example let them choose their own beddings or get a favorite daytime toy to accompany them.

  2. There are many reasons that a child suddenly stops sleeping in his own bed. The mother says the child is two but is “just two” or almost three? That can make a difference in how he feels about things. While a two year certainly can be fearful of monsters etc. unless he is being exposed to material that is clearly too scary and/or violent the types of fears described usually come a bit later. However, I would ask a few questions: Besides your son’s change in sleep habits have there been any other changes in his life, such as, a new nanny, mom going back to work, a new teacher at child care etc.? Is this couple expecting another baby? Parents often think that there toddler cannot understand adult talk but we call it “referential listening” when a child picks up a piece of information here and there and ends up with a confusing hodgepodge which can certainly interfere with sleep. A child may hear his parents talking about a “new baby” or he may notice that his mother is tired or even her morning sickness. Without an explanation it can cause some real confusion in a toddler. In a similar vein, if a grandparent or sitter is ill and there is adult talk about that, a child can pick up on the worried feeling without any understanding. I always advise parents to really make sure that any talk they wish to keep private is said when they are absolutely sure there child cannot overhear it. If the child has heard something, a simple, straight-forward explanation can really help. I would also look at how other separations in your life are going. Did you just start a class where he is separated from you? If so, was the separation allowed to unfold at your child’s pace or were you encouraged to “drop and run” and told that he stops crying after a bit? Since sleep itself is a separation, experiences like that can have a profound effect on how a child sleeps. I am bringing up all these different scenarios because of the description of a sudden change-it sounds like there could be something that precipitated this new behavior. I would be interested to know. However, many times, children just seem to need re-assurance and extra comfort. If that is, indeed, the case, transitional objects are terrific as well as an established routine for getting ready for bed. Good luck!

    • Susan – this are all great questions to look into. I think I might start with the simpler reassurances, and if that didn’t work, look into deeper issues that might be affecting the family. I thought your questions were great!

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