We've published a variant of this hack before, but I thought Sara's take was worth sharing as it has helped her calm her daughter's bedtime fears:
I know I was one of the lucky ones. After a colicky start, I was blessed with an easy-to-put-to-bed toddler; however, inexplicably at 20 months or so she started panicking at bedtime. There was no rocking her or rubbing her back that would allow a deep enough sleep that she wouldn't hear us leaving her room at night.
After various failed efforts (not using the AC in the middle of summer, using a nightlight, letting her cry, and telling her firmly to "go to bed, go to sleep") I was at the end of my rope. No web site seemed to help either because most sleep tips were for newborns or three and up. My mom found The Floppy Sleep Game Book by Patti Teel – a book about relaxation techniques for little ones to help them learn to sleep on their own, but it was geared at a level too high for my baby. However, she had a great recommendation – parents could either read the exercises to their kiddos and/or make a CD of them reading to help the kiddos not feel so alone.
Well duh, of course this simple but brilliant idea was the key to great bedtimes! I figured out how to record myself reading various favorite stories on a CD (of course if we still had blank tapes around the house that would have worked too) along with a track that has a relaxation technique involving saying night-night to my daughter's body one part at a time. Now we just listen to the first track, I tuck her in and tell her goodnight and to listen to her stories from mommy on the radio, and no more tears. That is, until she hits some other developmental milestone and we have to figure something else out
Our bedtime fears started in preschool. We thought we were home free with our second child — she was always easy to put to sleep as a baby and a toddler, but when she turned 3, it all changed. She's now 5, and she still has trouble getting to sleep and wakes in the night. Sleep really does wax and wane during the early years.
By the way, you can also use your CD in the car for road trips — nice way to quiet everyone down for a spell.
Related: Make your own white noise CD