Do you dread bedtime at your house? Does it take (or feel like it takes) hours to get your children to fall asleep at night?
Everyone tells you that you'll lose sleep when your baby is first born. What people don't tell you is that this sleeplessness can continue well into childhood. Some children happen to be wonderful sleepers from the start (my daughter was one); but, for the most part, many parents are not prepared for how hard it can be to help a child fall asleep and stay asleep at night.
If your least favorite time of the day is your child's bedtime, there are things you can do to make it better.
Consistency is Key
Children benefit from consistent bedtime routines. This doesn't mean you have to schedule every moment of your child’s day, but you will need to have some sort of consistency in how you go about your day. When it's time to wake up, open the blinds, sing a good morning song, or do whatever feels right to you. This will signal to your child that it's time to wake up. Have a regular pattern for eating, napping, and playing. At bedtime, have a consistent routine. If you start a routine when your baby is a newborn, it will become automatic to you and your child will know what to expect. You'll find that this will help, especially when your child becomes a toddler.
One father shared with me that he had no bedtime routine or a designated bedtime for his 2 year old son. The child played video games for as long as he wanted to and then he would eventually go to sleep at 10 or 11 at night. I recommended developing a consistent bedtime routine so it would be clear to his son when it was time to go to sleep. I also recommended reading books or singing songs before putting his son in his bed. A few days later, this dad was very happy to report that his son was getting a lot more sleep after they started using a consistent bedtime routine and a clear bedtime. Bedtime got a lot easier, his son was able to get up on time in the morning, and his behavior at school improved. If your children are having difficulties with sleeping, a great first step towards a solution is creating a calm, consistent bedtime.
The Bedtime Routine
The activities which make up your bedtime routine depend on what works for your child. Some parents read to their children or sing to them. Some children become so accustomed to the same thing so they ask for the same stories or songs every night. Some parents and children discuss things that happened during their day. Another interesting ritual is to talk with your child about what he or she would like to dream about during the night and perhaps even draw a picture about it. Bedtime routines are as unique as we are. As a parent, you can get creative - as long as it works for you and your child.
Remember - consistency is key, so choose steps that you can follow every night. If your child knows what to expect, he or she will probably be less likely to fight you at bedtime.
Your bedtime routine should calm your child and signal to their body that it is time to sleep. If you have to struggle with your child with any activity that is a part of your bedtime routine, move the activity to earlier in the day if possible or eliminate the activity entirely if appropriate.
If a bath calms and relaxes your child, you may want to make that a part of your bedtime routine; however, if baths tend to excite your child, or your child does not like them, try scheduling baths for earlier in the day.
Tips for bath time
If possible, dim the lights in the bathroom.
Play soft music in the bathroom.
Make sure the bath water is the right temperature.
Try to keep your child calm. Do not encourage splashing and play.
Reading to your child can be a great addition to any bedtime routine. It helps children with language skills and it helps them build a stronger foundation for school success.
If your baby has trouble settling down before bed, you may want to use infant massage or child yoga to help him or her relax.
In preparation for sleep, our body temperature drops. Physical play increases your child’s body temperature. This results in the child having a harder time falling asleep. Save physical play for earlier in the day.
Timing is Important
Figuring out what time your child’s bedtime should be is a key part of developing a consistent and effective bedtime routine.
If bedtime is too late, your child will be over tired. Once a child (or adult) becomes over tired, it will be harder for them to fall asleep and they will be more likely to wake during the night and earlier in the morning. As Dr. Marc Weissbluth says in his book Healthy Sleep Habits, Happy Child “It’s a vicious cycle: sleep begets sleep, but sleeplessness also begets sleeplessness. When babies miss the sleep they need, the fatigue causes a physical or chemical change in their bodies.”
If bedtime is too early for your child, falling asleep may be difficult because he or she will not be tired. Your child may begin to dread bedtime if he or she has to lie in bed or in a crib for a long time without falling asleep.
The table below can help you determine your child’s ideal bedtime. Figure out how long your bedtime routine takes, add that time to the recommended hours of sleep per day, and then you can decide what time you should begin getting your child ready for bed. It should take all of us 15 – 20 minutes to fall asleep. If we fall asleep the minute our head hits the pillow, we are too tired. Be sure to give your child the amount of time they need to be in their bed or crib before they should be asleep and try not to vary your child’s schedule by more than an hour each day.
Once children start to get older, they become great negotiators and can figure out lots of reasons to stall at bedtime. For older children (usually age 2.5 and up) sticker charts can be wonderful motivators. My son was never a good sleeper until he was a little over 3 years old. At that time, we put together a sticker chart and discussed it with him before he went to sleep and when he woke up in the morning. He would get stickers when he followed the manners on the chart and at the end of the week if he had a certain number of stickers he would get a small prize. Shortly after implementing that, he was sleeping through the night!
I recommend talking with your child about how important sleep is. For younger children, try talking about how much happier they will be the next day and how much more fun they will have if they get enough sleep. For older children, discuss how growing and other important body functions, such as healing, happen while we're asleep.
Stand Your Ground
Another important thing to remember is don't cave! If you've told your child no more water at bedtime and then you give him or her water after they’ve asked 10 times, next time they will keep asking and keep asking! Before implementing changes, think about what your child typically resists at bedtime and decide how you will handle it. If your child repeatedly wants hugs (as my son did), put a limit on it before bedtime. Tell your child you will give him or her a certain number of hugs, but once you have done so, he or she will need to wait until the morning for more hugs. If your child wants a drink of water, tell him or her how many times you will refill their cup (if at all) and then stick with it. Remember, it may be difficult to keep saying no this one time, but it can become even more difficult if you give in and change your mind just once.
There are different methods to help your child fall asleep independently. One method involves putting the child to bed and leaving the child to cry until he or she falls asleep. There is an alternative method which involves doing checks at timed intervals. Another technique involves staying in the room until your child falls asleep and gradually moving further and further away from their bed or crib after several days. Whichever method you choose to use, the most important factor for success is how consistent you are.
Remember to calm yourself at bedtime and try not to dread it. If you're dreading bedtime and behaving as if you're stressed out, your children may pick up on it. Do some deep breathing or anything else that helps you relax. Try not to watch the clock at bedtime and at times when your child may wake up during the night. Remember, creating a consistent, calming bedtime routine at the could be the key to getting many of your child's sleep problems under control.
Most of the problems I see as a Sleep Coach are because of behavior and the solution usually involves creating a consistent bedtime routine; however, there are sleep problems which are caused by medical issues. The following video discusses some common medical conditions that could be affecting the quality of your child’s sleep.
About Michelle Winters
Michelle Winters graduated from the College of William and Mary with a Bachelor’s of Science in Psychology. Michelle is a Pediatric Sleep Consultant who trained with Kim West, aka the Sleep Lady®. She has also been trained as a Maternity and Child Sleep Consultant through the International Maternity Institute.
Michelle's eight years at a Montessori school working with infants, toddlers, and preschool aged children had made her aware of how prevalent sleep difficulties are. She decided she wanted to do something to help all the tired parents out there, especially since she had been one of those tired parents until a couple of years ago when her then 3 year old son started finally sleeping through the night!
Please Note: The information contained in this article is not a substitute for advice given by a legal, medical, mental health, financial, or other professional.