Most parents can trade war stories about their kid’s bedtime. Christine Althoff sits in her daughter Claire’s doorway every night until she falls asleep. She’s been doing this for more than five years.
Before her twin sisters were born, Claire, now 7, was rocked to sleep. In an effort to get Claire to fall asleep on her own, Althoff began sitting at her bedside. Time passed and she tried to work her way out of her daughter’s bedroom, but the doorway is as far as she got.
“I don’t like it,” Althoff, a Little Rock, Ark. attorney, says. “But I know that I created it.”
Jennifer Waldburger, co-founder of Sleepy Planet, a Los Angeles-based child sleep consultation firm, says a battle-free bedtime is every parent’s goal. But, she says, many parents fall short because they don’t see the bigger picture.
The key in establishing a child’s bedtime routine is to delineate between what your child needs and what she wants. Waldburger says, “What she needs is some time with you and good sleep. There’s a whole war between a parent’s head and heart that keeps them from doing [what needs to be done].”
The stakes are high. Insufficient sleep not only affects a child’s development, behavior, and emotions, Waldburger says, it has been linked to a greater incidence of obesity.
Here are 10 tips for creating a bedtime plan that can help take the battle out of your kid’s getting to bed on time.
How to Set the Scene and Create the Ritual for a Peaceful ‘Good Night’
Make Sure Your Child’s Bedtime Is Early Enough
Parents will often tell Waldburger their child doesn’t seem tired at bedtime so they allow him to stay up longer. Big mistake, Waldburger says. “Once a child is overtired,” she says, “a stress hormone called cortisol is released, which makes it hard to settle in and causes a child to wake up more throughout the night and wake up too early [in the morning].”
If your child is overtired, Nicholas Long, PhD, a child psychologist at the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences, says, it may actually take her longer to fall asleep. Moving her bedtime up by 30 minutes may get your child to bed before she becomes overtired.
Keep Your Child’s Bedtime Consistent
Don’t stray too far from what you establish as the appropriate bedtime, Waldburger says. Consistency is crucial. That means that bedtime stays the same even on the weekends and during the summer when days are longer.
And when your child does go to bed later than usual, try to get him up about the same time. Long says it’s important not to let your child sleep in sometimes and not others so he doesn’t start shifting his sleep pattern.
Let Your Child Wind Down
Just as adults can’t go right from the busyness and activity of the day into sleep, neither can your child. She needs a transition to relax and settle down. “There should be no vigorous activity between a half hour and an hour before bedtime,” Jennifer Shu, MD, a pediatrician with Children’s Medical Group in Atlanta, says. Shu is also co-author of Heading Home with Your Newborn.
Establish a Routine for Your Child’s Bedtime
Shu calls this the Four B’s: bath, brushing teeth, books. and bed. The routine should start somewhere between 30 minutes and an hour before you want your child to be asleep, she says.
It’s important that your child’s routine be predictable, Waldburger says. Do the same things in the same order. “Over time, just doing the routine will make a child sleepy,” she says.
And it works in reverse too. Soon, when your child feels tired, she will start asking for bath and books, Shu says.
With older kids who get themselves ready for bed, Long suggests playing beat the clock. Make a deal with them that if they get ready before the timer rings they get an extra story or five extra minutes to read to themselves.
Offer Lots of Choices for Kid’s Bedtime
Offer your child simple either-or choices, not open-ended choices that will frustrate both of you, Waldburger says. The options are endless.
- Would you like to skip or walk to the bath?
- Would you like to wear the green pajamas or the blue ones?
- Do you want to read two or three stories?
- Would you like three kisses or five?
Take Charge and Set Limits
Children want us to run the show, Waldburger says. “A developmental task of a toddler is to push and test. Our job is to set healthy boundaries for them. Knowing that someone’s in charge actually makes your child feel more comfortable.” Children seem as if they want the sun, the moon, and the stars, she says. “But when they get it, it’s weird. It makes them feel unsafe when we don’t set limits.”
Too often, Waldburger says, parents worry that giving their children limits will upset them and make them less close. But this isn’t the case.
“Never once have I had a parent say that the child was less attached, less bonded [as a result of parental limits],” Waldburger says. “They always say the opposite. Once the child is getting that rest, he or she is thriving.”
Provide a Transitional Object
Bedtime means separation, and that can be hard on a child. Help your child cope by finding something that can substitute for you when you leave the room, Waldburger says. Take your child to the store and pick out mommy bear (or whatever stuffed animal he or she wants). Have mommy bear help make dinner, take a bath, and read books. “Then at bedtime, you say, ‘Mommy can’t stay but mommy bear will be here with you,'” Waldburger says. “It gives a child a piece of you to cuddle up with when you’re not there.”
Create a Comfortable Sleep Environment
Particularly for older kids, keep distractions out of the bedroom, Shu says. Electronics like TVs, video games, cell phones, and computers are sleep distractions and can be hard to control once you close the bedroom door.
Teach Your Kids to Fall Asleep on Their Own
Every parent knows this is the hardest job of all. But most sleep problems stem from this inability. Children associate certain conditions with being asleep, Waldburger says. During their lighter sleep phases, they will subconsciously check their environment for the same conditions they went to sleep with. If you were there when they fell asleep, they think you need to be there when they wake.
“The reason children wake up is not the issue,” Long says. “The issue is learning to fall back to sleep on their own.”
If children learn to fall asleep on their own, Shu says, then they’ll be able to put themselves to sleep that way — without waking you — when they wake up in the middle of the night.
When dealing with a sleep problem, many parents will do the same thing for several nights trying to create consistency and then fall off. Sometimes, something comes up. Sometimes, the child has just been crying one minute too long and a parent gives in.
“The consistency in their response to their child is the key,” Waldburger says. “It’s like the slot machine effect, she says. Put in a quarter, get nothing. Put in a quarter, get nothing. Put in a quarter, get $50. Yeah, the child thinks. I’m going to try that again.”
She says it usually takes more than one night to adjust to change. “But the consistency in your response,” she says, “will get your result more quickly. It is critical to minimizing the child’s frustration and get through the process quickly.”
“It doesn’t matter how far you’ve gotten off track,” Waldburger says. “Just be consistent. Once you’ve set the boundary, kids relax into it.”