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Our toddler (almost 3) at some point a few months ago stopped falling asleep by herself - now one of us needs to sit with her in her room, hold hands, etc. until she fully falls asleep. What is considerably more annoying, the same applies if she wakes up during the night - she starts shouting "I want my dad", so I have to get up, go to her, spend 30 mins or so until she falls asleep again. Usually she wakes up 2 times every night, so I am rather exhausted at this point.

I would appreciate any advice on how to break this pattern. With other things (e.g. giving away dummy, going to the nursery) we used educational books and cartoons (even about Peppa Pig when she is in her nursery) to convinced her that that's what "big" children do - but I wasn't able to find any decent material in this case.

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As a side note, the fact that she calls her dad in the middle of the night rather than her mom, is IMHO remarkable. It demonstrates that you have an excellent relationship with her. Savour the feeling that you are a good dad (when you have the time and energy to think about this :-) –  Péter Török Feb 2 '12 at 15:42
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5 Answers

Is it possible that she is afraid? This is the age when children usually start to be afraid of things, and especially of darkness. Ours did too, although it was not so problematic as your case. So try to discover the underlying reason.

If it is fear, first of all, if her room is too dark, you should install a night light. This helps to gradually make her let go of you. You may need some "training", to convince her - first to not hold your hand, while you are still sitting next to her bed, then gradually to accept that you are not directly next to her, but a little further away... then in the neighboring room.

You may also need to discuss fear with her, and use suitable bedside stories - or just plain open discussion - to alleviate her fears. Fear is definitely a real thing for children, and it won't go away by us wise adults asserting there is nothing to be afraid of - it's inside their mind, not outside in the room. At that age, they can't yet separate their internal imagery from reality. So you may need to set up some bedtime ceremonies to make them feel safe, such as checking and locking the doors/windows while telling her that now nothing bad can get in from outside, or putting a toy weapon next to her "just in case a wolf gets in" etc. (Girls typically have a meagrer selection of guns or lightsabres than boys, but ours have e.g. magic wands, and they used them to the same effect occasionally.)

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+1 When ours were young we used a nightlight that played music as well. Even at 5, my youngest sometimes wants a torch next to the bed, just in case. –  Rory Alsop Feb 2 '12 at 12:08
    
+1 this is exactly what I would have written. I just want to emphasis moving out of the room slowly, first stop holding hands then progressively move further and further away until you are out of the room. I am going to add an answer as to deal with night time wake ups. –  morah hochman Feb 2 '12 at 13:24
    
We started using the night light a few months ago already. –  Grzenio Feb 2 '12 at 14:29
    
+1 "Magic wands" :) –  Amy Patterson Feb 6 '12 at 21:20
    
"just in case a wolf gets in"??!! Dude, now you're scaring me! I'll be double checking that all the windows are locked tonight. –  Dan Moulding Feb 13 '12 at 13:54
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Lots of GREAT advice here....just wanted to add:

What we do with our 3 year old son, based on what we read in an article, when he has a nightmare: we tell him, "It's over now," as opposed to "it was only a bad dream." Saying it was only a dream creates a barrier between the two of you -- the child isn't old enough to fully understand that you can take the FEAR seriously without taking the DREAM seriously. By saying it was only a dream makes it seem like you don't take the fear seriously either. However, by saying, "It's over now," you're acknowledging the dream alongside the fear, and assuring them that no matter how bad it was, you have left the dream, the dream is over, so thus the reason to fear is gone too. It's basically taking the way the child connects the fear inextricably from the dream to your advantage. I usually also add, "You woke up in a better place," and then describe he's in his room, with his real mommy and daddy, it's safe, he's got his lovey, etc. etc.

It works REALLY well with our son. He even said to me one time "It's over now Mommy" when I said I had a bad dream!

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To add to the above excellent answer.

About middle of the night wake ups:

Go to her and have her try to verbalize why she woke up. This is the time when nightmares start. Also try to think what was introduced to her that day that could, in a child's mind, become a nightmare. Then come up with a solution to her problem.

For example, my 4-year-old woke up with a nightmare after learning a Bible story. She was able to tell me briefly that cows came out of the water and ate all the bad guys but then started eating the good guys too. I told her maybe the cows didn't realize dinner was over, so let's bake them a cake to eat after they took care of the bad guys so they wouldn't be hungry and they would have dessert, which means dinner is over. She was very happy to go back to sleep and give the cows the cake.

If this doesn't work, I would have to advise that you go comfort her and leave her explaining that both she and you need your sleep. Resist the urge to crawl into bed with her (that is what I would want to do) as that sets a bad precedent. Hopefully she will let you go.

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Have you got an established bedtime routine? My daughter was difficult until she learned key phrases "8 o clock" - "bedtime" - and "sleep sleep milk milk" or "bed bed". Sometimes if she is ill, or overexcited there may be protest, but normally she will walk to her bedside herself. Myself or mummy tuck her in, give her the tous (saying there names), and she will cuddle them, and she gets a cup (non spill) of warm milk. Generally, she will then say goodnight to us (we say it back), and then she will be gone when the milk is finished. We turn lights off after she is sound asleep.

Sometimes when she is overexcited and protesting, then letting her jump around a bit, then calming her down with a story will help a long way.

When she is ill, it can be difficult to get her to sleep, as she normally wont be able to drink milk (she wont keep it down). We give her Calpol (baby/toddle paracetamol) and soothe her as much as we can.

Having an enjoyable routine seemed to be the key for us.

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We do have a routine, and it works well in general. However, when the routine is over and its finally time to fall asleep, she would just insist on having one of us next to her, usually holding hands etc. Also I just don't understand why she wakes up during the night. –  Grzenio Feb 4 '12 at 18:17
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We are in the middle of a similar situation with our three-year-old, where she is scared of the dark and it's impacting going to sleep. Two things seem to be working:

(1) Since she's mentioned being scared of monsters hiding in the dark, we let a cat (we have quite a few ;> ) in her room to 'check things out.' Turns out that monsters don't come into houses that have cats! (This strategy could be adjusted for almost any creature or familiar object that is in your house: a teddy bear (bears are very tough), a toy car (can patrol the house); even the fish can splash around and scare away monsters).

(2) We also use an app on our phones and iPad to give out stars for good behavior (and remove them for bad behavior). She saves up the stars to redeem for rewards, like video game time or a new toy. One of her current goals is to go to bed without a fuss (doesn't help with the middle of the night wakeups directly, but it does seem she sleeps better on the nights she goes to bed without a fuss). This weekend we're hitting the Disney store for a new car; she's saved up enough stars over a few weeks to get one.

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The problem we are having is that she would just never tell us what is the problem, even though she speaks very well in general. –  Grzenio Feb 4 '12 at 18:16
    
We had to practically drag the reason out of ours, who like yours is quite vocal in general. I got an answer just by asking several direct questions: "Are you tired? Does your tummy hurt? Are you scared?". No matter how well they express themselves, they're still three and often don't know their own motivations until we can verbalize them. –  Valkyrie Feb 5 '12 at 13:10
    
I never pretend that monsters would really exist and should be "checked out". They are a fantasy, they exist in our dreams, but they are not real. That's what I teach my kids when they are afraid. If they tell me they dream of monsters, I usually say, that they only exist in your dream, and in your dream you can do whatever you like. I do tell them that I puffed at monsters in my dreams and with every puff they shrunk until they were really tiny and fit in the palm of my hand and then they were just cute and nice. –  mawimawi Feb 8 '12 at 22:01
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