Our nearly three-year-old Tilly has become unusually clingy at bedtime, refusing to go off to sleep without me staying in her room. At the same time her night-time sleeping started going downhill too with night waking becoming all too regular. As the sleep problems grew, I decided to it was time to try the gradual retreat technique. 

gradual_sleepThe gradual retreat technique deals with children who won’t fall asleep without a parent bring present. It’s generally thought that being able to fall asleep alone underpins good sleeping more generally. In essence, being able to sleep independently at the start of the night is then replicated when the child stirs during the night.

Tilly hasn’t had much difficulty falling asleep alone in the past; the separation anxiety common around 18 months old never having materialised. However, as she approaches three she now seems quite aware of the common anxieties associated with night and has begun holding out for extra reassurance.

Over the past month I’d found that at bedtime Tilly would increasingly want me to stay by her bed until she fell asleep. I initially thought that she just wasn’t so tired and needed the help but before we knew it she’d cry if I didn’t stay by her bed until she was asleep every night. We were facing a bad sleeping habit that had emerged in no more than two to three weeks.

Settling her would by itself have been okay but at the same time Tilly began waking at night. A lot. Combined with her usual early waking, this left us all dreadfully tired and action was needed if we weren’t going to lose the plot.

Having read up on a few different sleep techniques it seemed that the gradual retreat technique was the one to go for. We’d always used controlled crying in the past but efforts to leave the room even to perform a one minute task were met with crying and her leaving her bed and room to find me. I’d read that controlled crying can be less effective once children move into their own beds and that certainly seemed to be true with us.

Gradual separation keeps you in the room but progressively further away from their bed until you’re out of the room altogether and the child doesn’t need you there at all; thereby relearning how to self-settle themselves.

Over a series of nights I moved from her bedside to the chair in her room then towards the door. It’s only in the past few nights that being out of sight has there been a noticeably positive effect on her night-time sleeping with Tilly beginning to sleep through again for the first time in weeks.

We’re not there yet; although at the threshold of her room, she’s still complains a bit about me being there, so it’ll take a while longer before I can creep downstairs for an evening cuppa knowing my work is done. Nevertheless, those experts do seem to have it right again, and this technique is looking to be working for us.

Has your child experienced sleep problems? What techniques have you tried? Or perhaps you’ve used the gradual retreat technique yourself. Leave your experiences and thoughts in the comments section.

Photo credit: Pixabay

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6 thoughts on “The Gradual Retreat Technique

  • 10 December 2015 at 5:32 pm

    We adopted the same technique earlier in the year with Kara (not quite 3 at that time), who gave us quite abit of trouble going down for about six months. Things improved gradually (after a couple of setbacks) but she still has a habit of appearing in between us in our bed in the small hours. We’ll have to work on getting her back in to her own bed eventually and we know we’re probably creating a rod for our backs in not doing this immediately, but in the meantime it’s quite nice to have her snuggling up to us for a couple of hours.

    • 11 December 2015 at 9:30 pm

      We’ve tried to avoid her coming into our bed so far – actually I don’t think she knows it’s an option – but I end up in her room to help her settle so I still don’t get any sleep! Tempted to try the bed thing but fear it could be a pandora’ box.

  • 11 December 2015 at 6:39 pm

    It’s great that it’s working! Luckily we haven’t really had any problems yet – she’s a girl after her mother’s heart when it comes to loving sleep. 🙂 #binkylinky

  • 11 December 2015 at 9:10 pm

    Our twins are nearly four and go to bed well, but they will wake in the night and join us in bed. I don’t mind much, but wish they slept a little later in the mornings! Thanks for linking up to the #BinkyLinky

    • 11 December 2015 at 9:31 pm

      Coming to bed sounds common. We’ve been avoiding it but might eventually cave in if nothing else works!

  • 12 December 2015 at 12:48 pm

    Ella was a great sleeper until as you mentioned she got switched into her own bed and became mobile. I tried something similar when she was between 2-3yrs, first sitting beside her bed, then inching back a few inches until I was just outside the door and then waiting to ensure she didn’t escape to try to find me. It worked for us until she was 4 then she wanted me to lay with her in bed or she’d crawl into ours at night. I haven’t had the energy to fight it and it’s all on me but for now I’m enjoying my time being with her. She’s my one and only and I guess she’s growing up too fast that I worry I’ll soon be kicked out anyways so why not enjoy it now when she still wants me there 🙂


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