Has your pre-schooler’s bedtime become a nightly struggle?
Are they stalling, negotiating and fighting you every step of the way? When you stop and think about it, it’s not all that surprising.
On the one hand, your child is becoming more and more independent every day. Their ability to do things for themselves is growing by leaps and bounds, and they have very strong opinions about just about everything.
On the other hand, all of that blossoming independence may feel a bit scary, especially when it’s time to say goodnight. Fighting sleep is a very common way for pre-schoolers to both assert their independence and avoid it all at the same time! Helping them to navigate those ambivolent feelings when it’s time to say goodnight can do wonders to make bedtime what it should be – the calmest and coziest part of the day.
1. Stick to an age appropriate bedtime
Most pre-schoolers need about eleven hours of sleep each night to be well rested. That means that if your child starts their day at 6:30 am, they probably need to be asleep for the night by 7:30 pm. Don’t be fooled into a later bedtime because they appear to have bundles of energy late in the day. That “second wind” usually means that your child is over-tired – and being overtired at bedtime will make it more difficult for them to fall asleep and stay asleep. Stack the deck in their favor by getting them to bed before the cortisol kicks in.
2. Help your child unwind
Most adults can’t shut off their brain at bedtime without some sort of “wind down” period – and neither can most children. We all need time to relax and unwind. Avoid excitement, strenuous physical activities, bright lights and electronics for an hour before bedtime to allow a more gradual, natural progression towards sleep.
3. Give your child 20 minutes of focused attention before bedtime
Your child may be fighting sleep because they need to re-connect with you before they feel comfortable separating for the night. This may be especially true if you work outside the home, work from home or have more than one child. If possible, set aside 20 minutes before bedtime to cuddle and ask them about their day – you may find that your child is much more ready for sleep if they’ve had the chance to “touch base” with you in a meaningful way before lights out.
4. Have a consistent bedtime routine
Children thrive on routine and predictability, and like knowing what to expect. Create a nightly bedtime routine and try your best to stick to it. A picture chart that includes bath, teeth brushing, reading stories, and goodnight kisses can help to remind your child of what comes next. Giving advance notice (“five minutes until bath time”) can also keep things moving along. On nights where you’re running late it may be necessary to skip a step in the routine to protect bedtime, but most children are flexible enough to handle occasional variations.
5. Offer choices
Because refusing to cooperate at bedtime can be your child’s way of asserting control, finding another way for your child to feel in charge can diffuse a stand off. Allow them to decide what color PJ’s to wear, or give them a choice of which two books to read. Don’t overdo it. One or two choices per night is plenty – and be sure to only offer choices that you can live with!
If your child fusses or pleads for “one more book” stand firm. Don’t engage in a power struggle – tell them calmly that books are done and it’s time to say goodnight. Resist the urge to give in if their behavior escalates– mixed messages are confusing, and will only teach your child to fuss every night until you cave in. Anticipate negotiations and build them into the routine – offer an extra sip of water or another tuck in before the lights go out.
6. Use positive reinforcement
When your child goes to bed without fuss it’s an obvious win for you, but it’s also a win for them. Let them know when they’ve done a good job by offering lots of praise and hugs in the morning. If they’ve had an exceptionally good week of easy bedtimes you can celebrate with a special trip to the park or visit to the ice cream shop. Avoid falling into the “ objects as rewards” trap – the idea is to acknowledge their efforts and give them the opportunity to feel a sense of accomplishment – not send the message that they win a “prize” for doing what’s expected.
7. Try a transitional object
If separation is especially difficult for your child, offering an object that can substitute for you and provide comfort after lights out can be surprisingly effective for some children. A stuffed animal with voice recording capability or a picture of mommy or daddy in a soft frame tucked under their pillow can help them feel close to you after you leave the room. Be creative – one family I worked with used the baby monitor in reverse to ease the separation. Mom kept the camera portion of the monitor with her after lights out and placed it on the kitchen counter as did the dishes. Her child was able to watch her on the monitor screen from his bed every night as he drifted off to sleep worry-free.
8. Teach your pre-schooler to fall asleep without you
If your child needs you to stay in their room until they fall asleep, now’s a good time to gently teach them to fall asleep on their own. Coaching techniques that allow you to work your way out of the room slowly are highly effective with pre-schoolers. So are strategies that include frequent “check ins” that gradually reduce over time. With patience, consistency and a solid plan, most children can make the adjustment in a few weeks.
9. Do some detective work
Sometimes it takes a bit of investigation to figure out why your pre-schooler is struggling with bedtime. Try not to “lead the witness” by putting ideas in their head – give them the chance to tell you in their own words what’s bothering them.
If you suspect that genuine fears are keeping your child from settling, respond with empathy and understanding. Tell them that it’s your job to make sure that they’re safe, and that you’re very good at your job. Is the room too dark? A dim night light or light in the hallway is an easy fix. Is it too quiet? A lullaby CD may be the answer. Are there monsters under the bed? A bottle of “go away” spray can chase away scary thoughts. Dream cards, dream catchers, relaxation CD’s, a flashlight, and even a family pet to share the room with are just a few things that can help to empower your child and reassure them that they’re always safe and sound with mommy and daddy nearby.
Alison Bevan – Sleepytime Coach
Certified Pediatric Sleep Consultant – The Center For Advanced Pediatrics