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Bedtime Struggles

Why is it important to get my child to bed early?

Kids need a lot of sleep to function at their best. Toddlers and preschoolers may need 11 and a half to 13 and a half hours of sleep every day, and at this age, a later bedtime doesn't usually mean a later rising time. Children who don't get enough sleep tend to be cranky, irritable, and easily frustrated. Some even become overactive in an effort to keep themselves awake. Besides, putting your child to bed early gives you a little time for yourself or your spouse at the end of the day. Keeping to a regular bedtime also teaches your child about limits.

Why does my child have such a hard time going to bed?

Kids don't want to miss out on anything (they think the fun starts after they go to sleep). Your child may also be having trouble separating from you, or he might simply be trying to assert his independence.

How can I put a stop to bedtime struggles?

Follow these tried-and-true strategies:

  • Set a reasonable bedtime, and enforce it consistently. If you periodically give in to your child's requests to stay up later, he'll try every time.
  • Establish an evening routine, maybe a bath followed by a story or two. This gives your child a chance to wind down and signals that his day is over. You can make the ritual fun -- something he can look forward to, such as stories or games or simply time alone with you -- but keep it quiet so he doesn't get keyed up.
  • Give him ample warning. You can tell your child that bedtime is in 30 minutes. If he doesn't have much of a sense of time yet, set a timer or tell him that it'll be time when a certain TV program is over, for instance.
  • Make his room a pleasant place, with his favorite stuffed animals and a nightlight if he wants one. The more inviting his bedroom, the more he'll want to be there.
  • Give him some control. He can't decide when he'll go to bed, but he can decide which pajamas he'll wear or what book he wants to read (even if it's the same one night after night).
  • Anticipate his needs. If he constantly asks for water at bedtime, place a cup on his bedside table. Before you leave his room each night, ask if he needs anything else.
  • Deal with his fears. If your child has trouble separating from you, be sure to tell him that you'll be nearby and will check on him. It's important for him to feel he can count on you to see that he's safe, even if you're not with him every second.

Don't worry if these strategies don't take hold right away, particularly if you've never set a bedtime routine before. It might take a couple of weeks for your family to settle into the groove. In the meantime, be understanding but firm about sticking to it, even if it's not convenient for you. It might sometimes be easier to let your child fall asleep on the couch while you watch TV or read a book, but you'll be better off in the long run -- and so will your child -- if he's on a regular sleep schedule.

References

Frances L. Ilg, M.D., Louise Bates Ames, Ph.D., and Sidney M. Baker, M.D. Child Behavior: The Classic Child Care Manual from the Gesell Institute of Human Development. 1992. Harper Paperbacks.

Jodi A. Mindell, Ph.D. Sleeping Through the Night, Revised Edition: How Infants, Toddlers, and Their Parents Can Get a Good Night's Sleep. 2005. Harper Paperbacks.

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