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Teach Your Preschooler to Sleep

by: Kim West

Does your preschooler sleep poorly? Some parents are troubled because their children have been sleeping poorly for three, four, or even five years. They are utterly exhausted and doubt things will ever get better. But older children can be taught to sleep well. It takes time to change sleep habits, as well as parental consistency, but you can get your child excited about pursuing new sleep goals and help him or her feel proud about achieving them.

Start by convening a family meeting. Choose a relaxed time, when your child is happy, receptive, and reasonably well-rested. Sunday morning after pancakes, for instance, is a lot better than 5 p.m. when he or she is cranky after skipping a nap.

Very clearly explain to your child what changes will be made to his or her sleep routine so your child knows exactly what to expect. For example, "Daddy is not going to lie down with you anymore, but Daddy will stay near you until you fall asleep." Adapt the script to the appropriate sleep challenge, but you don't have to give a lot of detail. Reassure your child that you will be right there to help him or her learn to make changes, and show confidence that your child can do it.

Encourage your child to think about how he or she can participate, maybe by deciding what toy to bring to bed. You want your child to have a stake in success. Sticker charts are also a great motivator; post three or four “sleep manners,” one of which should be pretty easy to achieve to give your child a sense of accomplishment. Sleeping all night without waking up Mommy and Daddy is harder, but keep marking progress and offer lots of praise and encouragement.

Many children are actually relieved when parents bring up their sleep habits; they know that Mom and Dad are frustrated and want them to sleep differently. They are happy to know they can learn to sleep better. Keep reminding them that you are going to be there to help them.  

Keep discussion about progress upbeat and positive. You don’t want your child to feel like a failure. When they do learn to sleep well on their own, they feel a tremendous sense of accomplishment.


Kim West LCSW-C, LLC—the Sleep Lady®—is the author of Good Night, Sleep Tight: The Sleep Lady’s Gentle Guide to Helping Your Child Go to Sleep, Stay Asleep and Wake Up Happy. Her website is She can be reached at