Q: We have never let our 33-month-old son cry himself to sleep. He couldn’t adjust to a crib, so we put a mattress on the floor and lay down with him until he fell asleep.

This approach worked for all of us until recently. Now it can take upward of two hours for him to fall asleep. If we tuck him in and leave, he screams and comes running for us.

I am left with skipping his nap. He is so tired by bedtime he goes right to bed, but I can’t give up two hours every night until he falls asleep. — Via e-mail

A: Between age 3 and 5, most children stop napping. At first the transition can be confusing. A child is too tired without a nap but not tired enough for bedtime with one.

A two-hour nightly struggle is tough on everybody. Taking care of yourself as a parent is important, too — for all of you.

As naps fade, most children still need a rest break in early afternoon. Take him to his room, dim the lights and help him quiet down by quieting yourself.

At first he may want you to stay. Once he understands he needn’t sleep, he’ll learn to take a break on his own. You might put on soft music and give him storybooks or a few stuffed animals for daydreaming.

End his rest period by 3 p.m. Otherwise he’ll never be ready for bed at 8 or 9.

The mattress on the floor sounds fine — as long as his room and your entire home are childproof. Be sure he knows that his room is the limit.

Your child is still learning to settle himself for sleep. To help, you will need to help less. When you lie beside him he is comforted by your warmth, your heartbeat, your smell and your touch. Eventually he must feel comfortable on his own, wrapping himself in pillow and blankets or nuzzling a favorite stuffed animal.

One of my children would always go to sleep with her hands together, palm-to-palm, against her face — as if she were praying herself through the darkness.

Gradually you can shift to simply being present. Rather than lying in the bed, you can sit beside him, sing a lullaby or rub his back. Quietly encourage him to find his own thumb or a stuffed animal. Compliment his progress.

Over time you can pull back more, even if he still needs you to sit within sight as he falls asleep. then he’ll be doing far more of the work of settling on his own.

The goal is for him to learn that he can control his own patterns of sleeping and waking and that he can find ways of self-comforting.

Learning to sleep alone is an adaptation that our society has made to the way we live. For most of human history, and today in most places in the world, families sleep in close quarters and children may never need to learn to sleep alone.

If dropping the afternoon nap doesn’t help, we suggest you discuss your child’s sleep problem with his pediatrician, who can check for other, less common causes.

 

Questions or comments should be addressed to Dr. T. Berry Brazelton and Dr. Joshua Sparrow, care of The New York Times Syndicate, 620 Eighth Ave., 5th Floor, New York, N.Y. 10018. Questions may also be sent by e-mail to:

[email protected]

 

— New York Times Syndicate