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Teaching Your Child To Fall Asleep

One approach to this problem is quick and effective, although initially bothersome to most parents. If you’re 100 percent sure there’s nothing wrong with your infant, simply don’t respond to her late-night cries. That’s a very painful decision to make, for it is both physically and emotionally difficult to tune out your baby’s cries. Recognize, however, that the infant simply has to relearn how to make that transition from wakefulness to sleep by himself. This usually takes three or four nights at most. If the problem isn’t solved within that time period, see your pediatrician.

Toddlers often need help shifting gears from the animated activities of the day to the more passive pursuits of bedtime. Parents frequently assume that children can mentally prepare themselves for bed as quickly as adults do. However, young children need a cool-down period. If Daddy’s just played horsey with them, it’s too abrupt a transition to go to bed.

Rituals form an important part of this cool-down period for toddlers and preschoolers. Quiet activities, such as being read a story or listening to soothing music, can help the child learn to fall asleep without problems. Television, however, is not good for this since it is filled with rapid-fire images that are too stimulating. The bedtime story or glass of milk becomes the child’s transitional object for falling asleep. That’s one of the reasons why preschoolers will often ask to have the same story read to them for weeks or even months at a time. It provides reassurance that all is well and that they will be safe when their parents leave them alone for the night.

Quick Tips for Sleep Problems

  • Remember that you can’t control your children’s sleep. You can control only their bedtime. If a child says he can’t sleep, tell him that he has to be in bed. If he’s old enough, he can read. He can listen to calming music quietly. Usually the child will doze off in a short time.
  • Not all children require the same amount of sleep at a particular age. While some children are groggy if they don’t get as much as ten or more hours of sleep per night, others are happy with as little as six hours. Often toddlers who have trouble sleeping through the night can change that habit by taking fewer and shorter naps during the day.
  • Pay attention to when your child falls asleep. If a child goes to bed at 7 p.m. but always falls asleep at 8:30, you might be better off putting him to bed at 8:30. There will be less of a struggle at bedtime, and the child will get the same amount of sleep.
  • One of the most common reasons toddlers have difficulty sleeping through the night is that they nap too much during the day. If that’s the problem, substitute some quiet play or listening to music or a story for some of the nap times. This is, of course, more easily said than done if your toddler is attending a child care program, since nap time is often one of the few breaks a child care provider gets during the day.
  • If you want to teach your toddler or preschooler new skills having to do with falling asleep, such as learning to go to sleep in a strange bed, introduce those skills during daytime naps rather than at night. Young children perceive more dramatic differences between night and day than do adults. Daytime is much less mysterious and frightening than nighttime for these children, and is therefore a less stressful time to try new things.
  • Encourage calming rituals around bedtime. Remember that children often need at least ten minutes to calm down from the excitement of the day. A warm bath is often quite effective.
Teaching Your Child To Fall Asleep

Lawrence Kutner, Ph.D

Dr. Lawrence Kutner is a nationally known clinical psychologist who teaches at Harvard Medical School, where he's co-founder and co-director of the Harvard Medical School Center for Mental Health and Media. He's the author of five books, including: Parent & Child: Getting Through to Each Other; Pregnancy and Your Baby's First Year; Toddlers and Preschoolers; Your School-Age Child; and Making Sense of Your Teenager. All articles appearing here originally were published on Used with permission.

APA Reference
Kutner, L. (2018). Teaching Your Child To Fall Asleep. Psych Central. Retrieved on December 2, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 8 Oct 2018 (Originally: 17 May 2016)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 8 Oct 2018
Published on Psych All rights reserved.