Dear Miss Faith,
My daughter is 3.5 and very independent during the day, but very clingy/needy at night. She falls asleep fine, but comes into our room in the middle of the night and nobody gets much sleep after that. My husband and I have “solved” this by having one of us sleeping in her room each night, but we’re ready to be done with this and feel that she could be ready, too. How can we frame it so it’s not a punishment to sleep alone?
Thanks for writing! Since she falls asleep on her own, the question is how to let her know that she can fall BACK to sleep on her own when she wakes in the night, as well. If she talks about being scared, you can set up some sort of guardian to watch over her: a guardian angel, a photo of a dog, something that symbolizes protection in your home. Let her know that when she wakes up, she can look to see if her guardian is still there, and if it is, she can just close her eyes again and fall fast asleep. If she complains of bad dreams, putting up a Dream Catcher above her bed can be just the thing. Then if she comes in complaining of bad dreams, you can tell her, “Oh, your dream catcher must be clogged. Let’s go clean it out.” Then take her back to her room and ‘swipe’ the dream catcher clean with your fingers, then tuck her in again.
If she’s not scared or complaining, but just wants to be with you, then you might give her something special of yours (say, a favorite scarf) and tie it to her bed post. You might tell her that if she falls asleep holding one end of it, then as soon as she falls asleep she’ll find you in Dreamland, and the two of you will be together all night long, there. The next morning, ask if she saw you in Dreamland, and tell her about all of the fun things you two might have done together there.
Finally, you might talk about what the process of sleeping alone is going to be like. Three-and-a-half is really an age when imagination comes to life in a whole new way, so talk to her using the language of imagination. Tell a story about it for several days, or better yet, do it as a puppet show! Pick any three stuffed animals that you have; let’s say three teddy bears. In a very “story-time” voice, you could have them act out something like this:
Once upon a time there were three bears who lived in the woods together. During the summertime Baby Bear was happy to roam around the forest by himself, finding berries and honey to eat, playing in the trees, and having a good time. But when winter would come and it was time for the bears to hibernate and sleep for a long time, then Baby Bear wanted his Mama Bear or Papa Bear to sleep in his hollow tree stump with him. “Mama Bear, come sleep in my tree stump, right next to me,” Baby Bear would say, and Mama Bear would. Other winters, the Baby Bear would say, “Papa Bear, come sleep in my tree stump, right next to me,” and Papa Bear would.But one winter, Baby Bear was in for a surprise. “Mama Bear, come sleep in my tree stump, right next to me,” he said. But instead of coming, Mama Bear responded, “Now that you are getting older, Baby Bear, it is time for you to sleep in your tree stump by yourself. I will sleep in my own tree stump this winter.” “Papa Bear, come sleep with me,” said baby bear. But instead of coming, Papa Bear responded, “Now that you are getting older, Baby Bear, it is time for you to sleep in your tree stump by yourself. I will sleep in my own tree stump this winter.” Baby Bear was NOT PLEASED. He WANTED someone to sleep in his stump with him! He tried everything. “Please!!!! Please!!! Please!!!” he wheedled. But no. Mama Bear and Papa Bear each stayed in their own stump. “Come here RIGHT NOW!” yelled Baby Bear, stomping his feet. But Mama Bear and Papa Bear each stayed in their own stump. Finally Baby Bear tried to creep into Mama Bear’s stump with her. “When summer comes, we will all be together again,” Mama Bear said, and she led him back to his own stump.At first Baby Bear was sad, but he was also feeling VERY SLEEPY. Maybe he COULD sleep in his stump all by himself! Could he do it? Baby Bear curled himself up into a ball, and wrapped his blanket of leaves over his back, and he found that he was cozy and warm. Baby Bear gave a big yawn, and he closed his eyes. He knew that his Mama Bear and his Papa Bear were in their own stumps nearby. Baby Bear relaxed his body and fell fast asleep, all by himself. And when he woke in the spring, there were Mama Bear and Papa Bear waiting for him! And together they went out into the forest to find berries and honey, and played in the trees, and had a good time. And from that day forward, Baby Bear always slept alone in his own cozy stump, knowing that his Mama Bear and his Papa Bear would be ready to give him hugs and smiles when spring came again.