While it seems illogical and counterintuitive, you need to put your child down to sleep awake. Yes, awake. Let me explain why.
The idea that we “sleep through the night” is actually a complete fallacy. The human body wakes up, very briefly, several times each night as it transitions through different sleep cycles. So, if nobody woke you (those were the days!) the process would happen very naturally, you’d roll over, adjust your pillow and never remember you momentarily woke up. However, children need to learn the skill of putting themselves to sleep and that needs to be at bedtime, in the middle of the night and for naps.
If a child is put to sleep in their crib or bed too drowsy, or asleep already, they will never remember the process of actually laying down, feeling sleepy and then the act of falling asleep. What happens is something like the following:
You go through your bedtime routine, wash up, change out of your clothes, get into bed, put your head on the pillow. You remember tossing a few times and the next thing you know you wake up in the morning on the kitchen floor. You would think, “What happened? How on earth did I get here?!! I don’t remember this one bit!!”
That anxious reaction is what your child has if they don’t actually have a clear memory of falling asleep, in their crib or bed. Hence, many children wake crying during the night because they don’t remember how they got there!
Essentially, the act of falling asleep can only be remembered and placed into our “muscle memory” by your child being awake at bedtime. If sleepiness is on a scale of 1 to 10, 1 being awake on the playground at noon and 10 being asleep, your child should be at a 5. That means comfortable, clean, etc. but awake not an 8 or 9, which means he or she is too drowsy and sleepy to remember the act of falling asleep.
I know this may feel awkward and strange to many of us but it’s the best way to ensure that your child knows how to put himself or herself to sleep without something, or someone, doing it for them. Most importantly, with enough practice and “muscle memory”, as you coach him or her through the process, your child will now be able to put himself or herself to sleep at bedtime and throughout the night.