A reader asks:
"We weaned our 28-month-old son from his bottle a few months ago and as a result we had to sleep with him in his bed otherwise he would not stay in his room. My wife stays at home with him during the day while I work and I suppose it is a more natural choice that when he has to go to sleep, he wants his mom to be next to him. In the past, since I bathe him at night, I've been able to distract him and put him to bed myself, but lately he will not go for it and it results in tears. Eventually his mom gives in and he gets what he wants. How do we get his mom a break and eventually get him to go to sleep on his own?"When it comes to establishing good sleep habits, the earlier you start the better. It's going to be easier on your child and easier on yourself if you get those rules and routines going so that you can avoid problems later. Some parents don't realize that the habits they allow or even encourage can lead to sleep problems later. Once these problems have developed it can be difficult to make changes, but it's not impossible and is certainly worth the effort.
Sleep AssociationsChildren start establishing sleep associations very early in life. If your son is used to falling asleep with a bottle, the he will make that association every time it's bedtime until the association is broken or replaced. The same is true of any soothing measures that you offer your child. If you pat your child to sleep, if you rock him to sleep, if you sleep with him every night, if he takes a pacifier or must have a specific stuffed animal or blanket, etc.
Some of these associations are healthy. You want to set up certain routines so that your child's mind and body will begin to be ready for sleep. You might take a warm, soothing bath. Brush teeth. Read a story together. Turn all the lights down low. Turn off the television. You might have a rule about no rough-housing or other excitement a couple of hours before bed in order to indicate that a calm, soothing bedtime is approaching.
Other associations are not so healthy. If you give your child chocolate and caffeine before bedtime, he's going to have a problem falling asleep. If he has to have a bottle of milk in order to fall asleep, it may seem fine at first, but it later becomes an inconvenience and is unhealthy due to baby bottle cavities that can develop. It can also be a source of extra calories that your toddler doesn't really need.
Other associations that we might encourage straddle the line of healthy and unhealthy or may not seem like that big of a deal at first. What you have to consider then is whether or not it is truly affecting your child's sleep and whether it's affecting your own sleep or sanity or that of another caregiver.