The Sleep Fairy and Other Tricks to Help Your Kid Sleep

5 ways to help children learn to sleep on their own
The Sleep Fairy and Other Tricks to Help Your Kid Sleep

Does your toddler or preschooler find ever more creative ways to delay going to bed? Don’t let it take a toll on you.

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Pediatric sleep specialist Sally Ibrahim, MD, shares some of her favorite methods (developed by pediatric scientists) for training kids to fall asleep independently.

Choose the one that makes your child’s eyes light up:

1. The sleep fairy

Like the tooth fairy, the sleep fairy rewards kids in the morning — for staying in bed and falling asleep on their own.

The reward needn’t break the bank; a quarter is enough. Better yet, collect favorite objects in a jar or box.

“You can put this next to the bedside to remind them of the reward that comes in the morning,” she says. “When it’s full, your child earns a fun activity, like going to the park or, if older, to the arcade.”

The beauty of the sleep fairy is that it takes the parent out of the picture, she notes. In the morning, when your child says, “Look what the sleep fairy brought me,” you reply, “Oh, look how well you slept.”

Younger kids need frequent rewards; older kids can wait longer for their reward.

“It may not work instantly, but this is a great method for the imaginative child,” she says. “Parents know their child best and can anticipate if they’ll respond to this method.”

2. Bedtime charts/stickers

Rewards help to encourage kids. Another way to reward your child is to use a bedtime chart involving a sticker system.

“Here, you tell your child, ‘Look, I’ll stay with you for a little while, but then you’ll go to bed. And if you stay in bed all night, you’ll get a sticker in the morning,’” says Dr. Ibrahim.

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Stickers, charts and the sleep fairy are especially good for the strong-willed child, she says.

“Your strong-willed child may one day grow up to be successful. But right now, he or she needs to learn how to sleep independently,” says Dr. Ibrahim.

“This method helps to turn their will around.” It gives them a new goal and focus. 

3. Checking in

Does your child say, “Please don’t leave, I’m scared!” at bedtime? This method can reassure your child, help them relax, and teach their bodies to fall asleep.

“You say, ‘OK, how about if you stay right here in your bed, and I’ll be right back,’” says Dr. Ibrahim.

You leave for a short period of time, then come back and say, “I’m just checking on you.” Keep it low-key, and don’t pick your child up.

Then, each night, increase the time between checks. Eventually, you’ll find your child asleep when you go back to check.

The following morning, you say, “Oh, I checked on you, and you were doing great.” Over time, this should help your child learn to sleep independently.

4. The second good night

”The second goodnight gives children who try to play or protest going to bed something to anticipate,” says Dr. Ibrahim.

When you tell your child goodnight, add that you’ll come back for a second goodnight in 15 minutes.

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Your child will probably still be awake when you return. If they have been lying quietly in bed, you may elect to reward them (say, using a sticker chart). 

Then gradually delay the second goodnight. Knowing you’ll return will help your child feel safe and start to relax.

“Soon, your child will be drowsy and half-asleep for the second goodnight,” says Dr. Ibrahim. “As soon as you hear, ‘Goodnight,’ leave the room.”

5. The wake-up clock

Does your child get up repeatedly during the night or wake up too early? A wake-up clock, or toddler alarm clock, can cue them when it’s time to get out of bed.

Some clocks turn different colors — for example, red — at bedtime. “Tell your child, ‘OK, when it’s time to get out of bed, the clock will turn green. So wait until then to get up,’” says Dr. Ibrahim.

This method is not for all kids; it’s best for those who like structure and rules, she notes.

Some kids need extra help

These methods help most kids learn to fall asleep independently.

But if your child has a challenging issue such as oppositional defiant disorder (ODD), attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) or autism, a pediatric sleep specialist can help you find other solutions.

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