I know it doesn’t seem like sleep training and teaching kids to eat right have a lot in common. But they do.

I just finished coaching a friend through her toddler’s transition from the crib to a big kid bed. The approach I used was the same one I use to help parents solve their kids’ eating problems. (Well, conceptually speaking!)

And since I’m always hearing parents cry out for help in the sleep department I thought I would share my approach.

  1. Figure out what your child needs to learn.
  2. Identify and eliminate any unintended lessons you may (inadvertently) be teaching.
  3. Implement a strong but compassionate structure.

1. Figure out what your child needs to learn.

This step requies a mindshift.

Stop thinking…

  • “How do I get my child to stay in bed,” —an approach where parents “act on,” trick, or coerce the child.

Start asking yourself…

  • “What does my child need to learn in order to stay in bed?”—an approach that is interactive and supportive.

Here are some things your child might need to learn:

  • How to cope with a new (and therefore stimulating) environment
  • Self control
  • How to self-soothe

 2.  Identify and eliminate any unintended lessons you may (inadvertently) be teaching.

Here are some unintended lessons your child may be learning from whatever you’re doing now:

  • Popping out of bed is a fun game.
  • “I love seeing my parents turn that amazing shade of red as they get increasingly frustrated!”
  • POWER.
  • “They’ll do ANYTHING to stop me from crying/being upset.”

3. Implement a strong but compassionate structure.

Start with the strong structure.

Ensure anything your child might use as a ploy—”Im thirsty”—is handled in advance. That means you go through a checklist with your child during the bedtime routine.

  • Stories read? Check.
  • Potty visited? Check.
  • Stories read? Check.
  • Snuggly secured? Check.

Establish the rule. It’s obvious but needs to be said out loud to your kids: “You may not get out of bed.”

Then add the compassion.

  • Talk to your child before bedtime about how hard it is to stay in bed. This acknowledges their experience.
  • Ask your child if there is something he would like you to do to make staying in bed easier. My friend’s daughter wanted the door left open. (I know that sounds like a trap—open door=more distractions—but we accommodated her daughter’s request and it worked.)
  • Create an incentive for your child to stay in bed. In my friend’s case, we told her daughter that mom would check in on her every five minutes (a time span that we gradually lengthened) and that if she was in bed, mom would rub her back for a minute.
  • Never let your child get crazy-out-of-control upset. This was the magic behind the backrub approach. Not only did it create an incentive to stay in bed, but it helped ensure my friend’s daughter never got so upset that she couldn’t calm herself down.

Finally, the second your child gets out of bed, pick her up and put her back in bed, either saying nothing or saying, “You may not get out of bed.”

Don’t expect progress to happen in a linear way.

Progress goes up and down as your kids test the system, but it will trend towards success. It might take a couple of weeks (and what seems like hundreds of picking up and putting back to bed). But remember, the key is consistency.

I’m not a big fan of the cry-it-out/put up a gate/lock the door method.

There is no question that it works. Kids learn that there’s no payoff from getting out of bed. However, in my opinion, it also teaches kids that they’re on their own. I’d rather support my child in her struggle, and teach my way out of any problems. Plus, in my experience, once kids get overly upset they can’t calm down (and they lose their minds).

I also don’t think parents should have to sit in their children’s rooms for hours every night. That simply teaches children they’re in control.

The approach I have outlined provides the discipline/structure/strength of the cry-it-out approach and the compassion/heart of the sit-in-the-room approach.

These are the same steps you take to teach kids to eat right.

The details differ, but the strategy stays the same: Figure out what your child needs to learn; Identify and eliminate any unintended lessons you may (inadvertently) be teaching; Implement a strong but compassionate structure.

~Changing the conversation from nutrition to habits.~