Teaching Healthy Independent Sleep Skills to Big Kids
There are so many reasons why your big kid may need to learn or re-learn healthy independent sleep skills. Maybe room or bed sharing was working well for your family up until recently, or maybe your sleep trained baby turned into a big kid with big fears and unsustainable habits, or maybe sleep has always been a struggle for your child, and it has only gotten harder after the transition to a big kid bed.
It doesn’t always matter what causes any particular sleep struggle, but it’s important to know that it’s very normal, and very fixable! And of course, we can teach our big kids to be healthy sleepers in the kindest of ways.
I recommend using comprehensive sleep plans for teaching or re-setting healthy sleep habits for any age child from 4 months through 5 years. And I find it only becomes more important that plans are fully comprehensive and personalized once babies turn to toddlers, and even more so when they turn into preschoolers.
The older the child is, the stronger their sleep habits are, the more important their routines are, and the more necessary it is to include and empower them in and throughout the sleep training process. We don’t ever want to pull the rug out from under a big kid. We want them to be involved, to understand the why, the how, and to receive very logical positive feedback throughout the process. I also don’t expect parents to be very consistent throughout the teaching process if they are not completely confident that they are setting their child up for success. And as I'm sure you already know, consistency is absolutely key.
In order to truly set your child up for success, it’s helpful to consider three major elements when improving healthy sleep skills with a big kid. Those three major elements include sleep hygiene, a consistent response method, and age appropriate preparation and celebration. Each of these three major elements include several sub elements. When the whole puzzle comprised of these major elements and sub elements are put together, healthy sleep skills can result!
I’d like to use this blog to outline this effective puzzle for successfully teaching healthy sleep habits to our big kids.
ONE. Sleep Hygiene.
It’s always always always absolutely critical to factor in the sleep science so that when you are offering sleep to your beautiful big kid, they are also ready to receive sleep on a biological level. This means that you are taking a fine tooth comb to these sub elements: the sleep environment, the timing of sleep, and the routines around sleep.
Like any parent of a toddler or preschooler, I am well aware of how they can convince you to actually help them turn their sleep environment into a well lit play room. Of course we want them to feel comfortable in their sleep environment. So it’s really no wonder that we allow them to bring more and more items into their beds until it is the exact opposite of a conducive room for sleep. This bit of necessary advice terrifies most parents, but in order to teach or re-set healthy sleep skills, it’s very important that the environment is dark, quiet, and boring. Yes they can keep some security stuffies and maybe one very dim orange or red night light along with a continuous white noise machine. Ideally, the room should scream “sleep”, and it can’t do that if there is music, light up or talking toys, or night lights that create shadows or interfere with their natural production of the sleepy hormone, melatonin.
In order to re-set healthy sleep skills, we need to ensure that we aren’t offering sleep after their second wind has hit! The ideal bedtime for a toddler or preschooler is somewhere between 6pm and 8pm, depending on the presence or absence of a nap along with their behaviors and mood around 4 and 5pm. Many parents are fooled by the second wind that can hit very quickly, with minimal notice, and fool you to think your child couldn’t possibly go to bed any time soon as they are running around the house full of energy – when in actuality, they have missed their ideal sleepy window and are running on cortisol. The trick is shifting bedtime earlier to offer sleep before stimulating hormones are circulating, which can make falling asleep and consolidating sleep physically more difficult.
Big kids tend to be big fans of their bedtime routines. This is because knowing exactly what to expect makes them feel safe in an otherwise unpredictable world. The problem is when their routines are filled with stalling, protest, negotiations, and curtain calls leading to a never-ending routine. It goes a long way to re imagine your child’s bedtime routine in a way that offers simplicity and more clarity around each step and how it ends. My favorite tool to help your child get on board with any bedtime routine changes, is to create a personalized bedtime routine chart. This is a chart that is comprised of real pictures of your very own child performing each step of their routine. Glue the pictures on to a poster board with a few simple rules that come into play after the routine ends, and this will be something they can decorate themselves while you review all of the exciting changes that are coming in advance of implementing the plan.
TWO. Consistent Response Method
Many parents are familiar with the response method options for sleep training a baby, but struggle to understand how it works with a big kid -especially one who can freely roam around the house. For a big kid who is still in the crib, it’s the sleep training response method options are really the same as they are for a baby. Here is a review of all the most effective response method options ranging from min to max involvement from caregivers.
For the big kid in the big kid bed, it’s also important to factor in a plan for what to do in response to getting out of bed and leaving the room. And please remember, no matter how you choose to respond, it will be in the exact way you have so lovingly prepared them for. There will be no surprises – just a bunch of following through on doing exactly what you said you would – which we know makes children feel safe, even when it’s not what they want in the moment.
One option for leaving the room is a silent return. This is when you casually wait near the bedroom door, ready to calmly, silently, and oh so boringly walk them back to their beds as many times as it takes. This can be many many times at first, but when implemented consistently, you really take the excitement out of the activity, ultimately allowing your big kid to lean into sleep.
Another option is to use a physical boundary in the form of a baby gate or safe external lock. The boundary is never presented or used as a punishment, but instead as a helpful tool. This is a tool that can help your child remember to keep their body in their bed if they are having a hard time. I recommend using the “Boss of the Door” technique to include and empower your child throughout the process. Every night before bed your child gets to choose if the “door helper” goes on to help them keep their body in their bed, or if it should stay off because they want to try keeping their body in their bed all by themselves. If your child chooses to have the “door helper” off, then they are the boss – it stays off. However, if they leave the room, they might get 1 or even 2 reminders, but ultimately if they are unable to keep their body in their bed, then the logical consequence is that the “door helper” does need to be engaged in order to help them. Then you can proceed to support them using whichever response method you decided to use.
THREE. Age-Appropriate Preparation and Celebration
It’s very likely that if you’re working to improve your child’s sleep, you are going to need to make more than just one or two changes. And every single small change has the potential to feel like a really big deal to your big kid. For this reason, it’s super important to take the time to really prepare them for each and every change they can expect. We do not want to ever pull the rug out from under them! And we want to balance giving them time and space to process the idea of these changes with not wanting to hang any impending doom over their sweet little heads.
I recommend holding a Family Meeting on the morning of the day you choose to implement the plan to present all of the changes in a positive way. This is the perfect time to present that personalized bedtime routine chart as a visual tool and also a decorating activity to keep them still for a few minutes. Show them that most of the things are going to be the same as always, but very clearly touch on each aspect that will be different. Explain the WHY, the WHEN, and the HOW.
We have been learning a lot about sleep and we learned that families who get a lot of sleep have more energy to run faster, jump higher, and read more books! Insert any favorite activity here :)
We are going to start with your bedtime routine tonight after dinner.
Review those aspects of the bedtime routine that are different, making sure to be very clear about how the bedtime routine will end and also how you as their very loving caregivers will support them along the way.
Wrap that meeting up whenever they are no longer paying any attention or you have touched on everything you hoped to touch on, and then make sure to wrap it up with a fun activity to call it an initial success.
Thank goodness this meeting was in the morning so you have all day long to touch on every single change they can expect throughout the day in the most loving of ways. Make sure to show them how their room will look if you made any changes here, and actually practice any new skills with them along with any new tools you might be incorporating (OK to Wake Clock, hint hint). Actual practice and review are so important in helping your big kid process the changes so they can really be as prepared as possible come bedtime.
Finally, we do want to celebrate our children throughout the learning process. This means offering praise for one good thing they were able to do each morning. Then when they really do start making sleep gains, you can offer logical rewards in the form of actually doing fun things and relating them to all of the newfound energy you have from sleeping really well.
Successfully teaching big kids healthy independent sleep habits is a process. For some families it will be a quick process while for other families it can take several weeks. What’s most important is to consider each and every element that significantly impacts sleep and making all of those helpful changes at the same time, and then following through and staying consistent.
Personally, I recommend hiring a friendly, knowledgeable, and experienced sleep consultant to guide and support you along the way so you can truly reach your goals and get back to sleep. If you’re interested in a personalized and comprehensive sleep plan along with daily support along the way while you implement that plan, check out the sleep services I offer and then go ahead and schedule a free discovery call to connect and get started.
All children are capable of healthy and independent sleep habits, many just need thoughtful and effective support from their grownups to make the process smooth and successful.