Switching bedtime routine in a 4-year-old

Margaux writes:

"My son is 4 and for the past year or maybe a bit more, we've gotten into what I consider to be a bad habit, which is that I have to lie with him while he falls asleep. It didn't used to be the case, but as most habits go, I think one night he asked me to, I said yes, and the rest is history.

Some nights I don't mind it; I work and he goes to daycare, so it's nice to be able to have that time with him. However, some nights all I want to do is be free of that room. I have a 1-year-old and do freelance work after they're in bed, so some nights it's really a matter of necessity.

I have asked daycare to stop allowing him to nap (he hasn't napped at home in probably two years) so that he falls asleep easier, but I really want him to be able to fall asleep on his own. I don't think he's afraid. I just think it's a habit.

Wondering if anyone has had any success with any particular method of this. He is very headstrong so whatever I decide to do is probably not going to be easy."

First, I'd like to say to all of you with teeny tiny babies who are worried about getting into bad habits, especially bad sleep habits: Don't worry. There's ALWAYS time to get into a bad sleep habit.

Seriously, though, we make and break habits throughout our lives. Think about what time you go to bed yourself now, and how that was different ten years ago. And will (we hope) be different ten years from now. People bite their nails for years and then suddenly stop. A friend of mine ate tuna melts for lunch every single day for six weeks a few years ago, then stopped abruptly. Habits and breaking them are a normal part of the human experience.

Lots of parenting literature talks about bad habits like terrifying bogeymen that we have to do anything to avoid. I see them differently. There's a reason you developed that habit. It served you when you started it. The only thing that makes it "bad" now is that it's no longer serving you. So it's time to change it. And you can.

Four-year-olds seem so big, but are really still so little. So I'd do two things. I'd figure out what, exactly, he's getting from you lying down with him. Is it the extra time with you? Is he afraid of being alone in his room in the dark? Is he afraid he's missing something when he goes to sleep? If you can figure out exactly which need the lying down with him is filling, then you can figure out what else to substitute. (An extra ten minutes snuggling and reading together if he wants more time with you, or a new cool nightlight if he's afraid of the dark, or a silent house if he's afraid of missing something, etc.)

Once you've determined what he's getting out of the lying down, brainstorm WITH HIM about a new bedtime routine that will give him that same thing he wants, but without your having to lie there for an hour or however long it is. (And having lived the full-time job plus freelance work after bedtime lifestyle, I salute you, Margaux.) If you give him a stake in the deciding what the new routine is going to be, then it'll be something he's helped create and it won't feel like a punishment or like it's something you're forcing on him. When you talk about changing the routine, use the standard "big boys do X" language to get him on board with a change in general.

You said he's 4, so I don't know if he's closer to 4 or to 5. If he's closer to 4 the above plan should work well. If he's almost 5, this is a big dig-in-their-heels-to-be-a-baby-for-just-a-little-longer phase that lasts for a few months right around 4.75 years. If that's what he's in now, you'll have better luck making a change two weeks after he turns five. If you can hold on until then, the whole thing will be so much easier.

Did anyone else break the lying-down habit? I have memories of lying down with both of mine, but no memories of how we got out of it. So it was either too easy to remember or too traumatic to remember...

Who's got ideas for Margaux?